Week Forty-Two: “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick and “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel

 

 

 

“The Shawl” Cynthia Ozick

 

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.”

 

Thus begins Cynthia Ozick’s short (just five pages) yet riveting story, “The Shawl.”

“Ozick wrote it, she says, in a way she has never written anything, before or since. “I’m not a mystic, I don’t believe in any of that. I’ve been on the side of rationalism. I had an experience, just the first five pages – I hate to say it, it’s the kind of absurd thing that I mock – that I wasn’t writing it, that it was dictated. Just for those five pages.”

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope you will consider reading Ozick’s award-winning short story, which was chosen for The Big Read by The National Endowment for the Arts.

At less than 2000 words, here is “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick.

 

Should you prefer to hear the story read aloud, check out this instalment of Yiddish Story Time, introduced by Leonard Nimoy:

 

 

Major Characters in the Book

Rosa Lublin
As a young woman, Rosa is raped by a German soldier, confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with her niece, Stella, and her infant daughter, Magda. Almost four decades later, Rosa lives in Miami, haunted by the memory of her daughter’s death. “Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. … Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel.'”

Stella
Teenage Stella’s theft of the shawl leads to her cousin Magda’s death. As an adult, Stella provides Rosa with financial support, but she cannot understand her aunt’s inability to let go of the past. “Stella liked everything from Rosa’s junkshop, everything used, old, lacy with other people’s history.”

Magda
A baby hidden in her mother’s shawl, Magda survives infancy in a concentration camp in Nazi German-occupied Poland but is murdered by a guard at fifteen months old.
“The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa’s bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat. You could think she was one of their babies.”

Simon Persky
A retiree whose wife is hospitalized in a mental institution, Simon is a comic character in a tragic situation. His persistent kindness begins to break through some of Rosa’s barriers. “Two whole long rows of glinting dentures smiled at her; he was proud to be a flirt.”

How The Shawl Came to Be Written

The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl.

“It began with those very short five pages. We read now and again that a person sits down to write and there’s a sense that some mystical hand is guiding you and you’re not writing out of yourself. I think reasonably, if you’re a rational person, you can’t accept that. But I did have the sense—I did this one time in my life—that I was suddenly extraordinarily fluent, and I’m never fluent. I wrote those five pages as if I heard a voice. In a sense, I have no entitlement to this part because it’s an experience in a death camp. I was not there. I did not experience it.”

“I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

—Excerpted from Cynthia Ozick’s interview with former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia¹

 

. . .A bit about Cynthia Ozick . . .

 

cynthia-ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, (born April 17, 1928, New York, N.Y., U.S.), American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and intellectual whose works seek to define the challenge of remaining Jewish in contemporary American life. By delving into the oldest religious sources of Judaism, Ozick explored much new territory.

 

Ozick received a B.A. in English in 1949 from New York University and an M.A. in 1950 from Ohio State University. Her first novel, Trust (1966), is the story of a woman’s rejection of her wealthy American Jewish family and her search for her renegade father in Europe. It has echoes of Henry James in its juxtaposition of American and European settings. In subsequent books, such as Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick struggled with the idea that the creation of art (a pagan activity) is in direct opposition to principles of Judaism, which forbids the creation of idols. The psychological aftermath of the Holocaust is another theme of her work, especially in Levitation: Five Fictions (1982) and the novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Shawl (1989). She often drew upon traditional Jewish mysticism to expand upon her themes. One of her recurring characters is Ruth Puttermesser. In 1997 Ozick published The Puttermesser Papers, a short novel consisting of narratives and false memories of the aging Puttermesser, who in one story brings a female golem to life in order to save New York City, with disastrous results.

 

Ozick’s later works turn away from the theme of the sacred and the profane. Her novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is, in part, a meditation on the nature of writing. Heir to the Glimmering World (2004; also published as The Bear Boy) tells the story of a young woman hired as a nanny in the home of two Jewish-German academics exiled to New York City in the 1930s. Diction: A Quartet, a collection of four short stories, was published in 2008.

 

Many of Ozick’s essays have been collected in Art & Ardor (1983), Metaphor & Memory (1989), Fame & Folly (1996), Quarrel & Quandary (2000), and The Din in the Head (2006).

 

 

 

“The Watch” by Eli Wiesel

 

Can we return to the past? Get beyond the past?

When we survive horror, does time heal us?

 

Eli Wiesel interviewed by Oprah Winfrey

If you would like a second optional piece to pair with Ozick’s “The Shawl,”  we suggest “The Watch,” by Elie Wiesel.

The shawl had great symbolism in Ozick’s tale. What will the watch represent, in Wiesel’s?

 

HERE is “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel.

 

  1. What sort of feelings does the protagonist have towards the people of the town in the beginning of the story? The end of the story?
  2. What does the watch symbolize, if anything?

 

 

. . .A bit about Eli Wiesel . . .

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. He was fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished, his two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945. elie-wiesel

After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel as Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He is President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. Elie Wiesel has received more than 100 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning.

A devoted supporter of Israel, Elie Wiesel has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia. For more than fifteen years, Elie and his wife Marion have been especially devoted to the cause of Ethiopian-born Israeli youth through the Foundation’s Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment.

Teaching has always been central to Elie Wiesel’s work. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. He is a member of the Faculty in the Department of Religion as well as the Department of Philosophy. Previously, he served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than sixty books of fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two volumes of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, and most recently The Sonderberg Case.

For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and soon after, Marion and Elie Wiesel established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.²

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ The Big Read, NEA website

² The Eli Wiesel Foundation

 

 

 

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Week Thirty-Seven and Thirty-Eight: “The Dead” by James Joyce

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Cover of the Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners, of which “The Dead” is the last story-novella.

 

 

It’s time for our Winter Novella Challenge! The votes are in and our book club members have decided to study “The Dead” by James Joyce, so get ready to visit the city of Dublin, just after the turn of the century!

Dubliners is a book of short stories penned by Joyce at the height of Irish Nationalism, published in 1914 . . . the beginning of the first world war.

“The Dead,” often considered a novella in its own right, is the culminating tale in Joyce’s book.

The stories depict a myriad of characters from everyday life. In order, the stories are:

 

  • “The Sisters” – A priest, Father Flynn dies, and a young boy deals with it.
  • “An Encounter” – Two schoolboys playing truant encounter an elderly man.
  • “Araby” – A boy falls in love with the sister of his friend,.
  • “Eveline” – A young woman weighs her decision to flee Ireland.
  • “After the Race” – College student Jimmy Doyle tries to fit in with his wealthy friends.
  • “Two Gallants” – Two con men, Lenehan and Corley, and their deeds.
  • “The Boarding House” – Mrs Mooney successfully maneuvers her daughter Polly.
  • “A Little Cloud” – Little Chandler’s dinner with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher casts fresh light on his own failed literary dreams.
  • “Counterparts” – Farrington, a lumbering alcoholic scrivener, takes out his frustration in pubs and on his son Tom.
  • “Clay” – The old maid Maria, a laundress, celebrates Halloween with her former foster child Joe Donnelly and his family.
  • “A Painful Case” – Mr Duffy rebuffs Mrs Sinico.
  • “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” – Minor politicians try to live up to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell.
  • “A Mother” – Mrs Kearney tries to win a place of pride for her daughter, Kathleen.
  • “Grace” – Mr Kernan injures himself falling down the stairs in a bar.
  • “The Dead” – Gabriel Conroy attends a party, and later, as he speaks with his wife, has an epiphany about the nature of life and death. At 15–16,000 words this story has also been classified as a novella. The Dead was adapted into a film by John Huston, written for the screen by his son Tony and starring his daughter Anjelica as Mrs. Conroy.

 

HERE is the text of Joyce’s novella, “The Dead,” Enjoy!

Penguin Random House summarizes Dubliners this way:

“Joyce casts a wide net, arranging the stories so they move from childhood to adulthood and from public to private. In his thoroughness, Joyce is as tender as he is fierce. The first Dubliners we meet are curious children hungry for adventure and love. There are young boys with romantic visions of chivalry and young women longing to escape. Yet (some) youthful dreams quickly fade for the adults in later stories,”. . .culminating in the character of Gabriel in “The Dead.”

What do you make of Gabriel? How would you describe his character?

 

Some other thoughts to contemplate, as the snow falls and the holidays approach:

In “The Dead,” the narrator describes Gretta listening to music on the stairs as “a symbol of something.” Is Gretta a symbol of anything? And, if so, of what?

Once Gretta falls asleep after telling Gabriel about Michael Furey, why does Gabriel feel so alienated from her?

 

“The Lass of Aughrim”

I am a poor young girl
That’s straight from Callander
I’m in search of Lord Gregory
Pray God I find him!
The rain beats my yellow locks
And the dew wets me still
My babe is cold in my arms
Lord Gregory, let me in!

Lord Gregory’s not here and
Henceforth can’t be seen
For he’s gone to bonny Scotland
For to bring home his new queen
So leave now these windows
And likewise this hall
For it’s deep in the sea
You should hide your downfall

Who’ll shoe my babe’s little feet?
Who’ll put gloves on her hand?
Who will tie my babe’s middle
With a long linen band?
Who’ll comb my babe’s yellow hair
With an ivory comb?
Who will be my babe’s father
Till Lord Gregory comes home?

Do you remember, love Gregory
That night in Callander
Where we changed pocket handkerchiefs
And me against my will?
For yours was pure linen, love
And mine but coarse cloth
For yours cost a guinea, love
And mine but one groat

Do you remember, love Gregory
That night in Callander
Where we changed rings on our fingers
And me against my will?
For yours was pure silver, love
And mine was but tin
For yours cost a guinea, love
And mine but one cent

And my curse on you, Mother
My curse being sore!
Sure, I dreamed the girl I love
Came a-knocking at my door

Sleep down you foolish son
Sleep down and sleep on
For it’s long ago that weary girl
Lies drownin’ in the sea

Well go saddle me the black horse
The brown, and the gray
Go saddle me the best horse
In my stable to-day!
And I’ll range over mountains
Over valleys so wide
Till I find the girl I love
And I’ll lay by her side

 

As member Jeri Harbers Thomson reminds us, ”’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (Alfred Lord Tennyson.)

There is that moment of bleak epiphany when one realizes that something they’ve always thought of as a reality was never real, after all. So then you question everything else in your life that rests upon that. It’s worth reading Joyce’s “The Dead. ”  Of it, author Karl Knausgaard says ” The Dead is a perfect short story. The best short story ever written .”

“He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
James Joyce, The Dead

Thus Dublin, as Joyce depicts it through the eyes of Gabriel Conroy, is a snow-laden monument not only to appearance versus reality but the final scene in a drama which has progressed from the innocence of street children to the melancholic epiphany of everyone who has ever had a curtain of myth torn down from before their eyes.

And the snow keeps falling around our wiser hero, gently.

 . . .A bit about James Joyce . . .

james-joyce-9358676-1-402

 

From the James Joyce Center website:

“James Joyce (1882 – 1941) is one of Ireland’s most influential and celebrated writers. His most famous work is Ulysses (1922) which follows the movements of Leopold Bloom through a single day on June 16th, 1904. Ulysses is based on Homer’s The Odyssey.

Some of Joyce’s other major works include the short story collection Dubliners (1914), and novels A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). Joyce was born in Dublin on 2nd February 1882 and attended school in Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College (just up the road from the Centre) before going on to University College, then located on St Stephen’s Green, where he studied modern languages.

After graduating from university, Joyce went to Paris, ostensibly to study medicine, and was recalled to Dublin in April 1903 because of the illness and subsequent death of his mother. He stayed in Ireland until 1904, and in June that year he met Nora Barnacle, the Galway woman who was to become his partner and later his wife.

In August 1904 the first of Joyce’s short stories was published in the Irish Homestead magazine, followed by two others, but in October Joyce and Nora left Ireland going first to Pola (now Pula, Croatia) where Joyce got a job teaching English at a Berlitz school. After he left Ireland in 1904, Joyce only made four return visits, the last of those in 1912, after which he never returned to Ireland.

James Joyce with Nora Barnacle

James Joyce walking down a Dublin street with his wife Nora and a friend.

1914 proved a crucial year for Joyce. With Ezra Pound’s assistance, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s first novel, began to appear in serial form in Harriet Weaver’s Egoist magazine in London. His collection of short stories, Dubliners, on which he had been working since 1904, was finally published, and he also wrote his only play, Exiles. It was after these successes that Joyce began to think seriously about writing the novel he had been formulating since 1907: Ulysses.

With the start of World War One, Joyce and Nora, along with their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, were forced to leave Trieste and arrived in Zurich where they lived for the duration of the war. It was during this time that Joyce worked on Ulysses and included many characteristics of those around him in the characters of the book. Though Joyce wanted to settle in Trieste again after the War, the poet Ezra Pound persuaded him to come to Paris for a while, and Joyce stayed there for the next twenty years.

It was in Paris that Joyce met Sylvia Beach, an American ex-pat who helped him to publish Ulysses for the first time in 1922. From 1930, after Beach had relinquished the rights to Ulysses, Joyce became very close with Paul Léon, another ex-pat living in Paris. Léon became Joyce’s business advisor and close friend and helped him to publish his final book Finnegans Wake in 1939.

In 1940, when Joyce fled to the south of France ahead of the Nazi invasion, Léon returned to the Joyces’ apartment in Paris to salvage their belongings and put them into safekeeping for the duration of the war. It’s thanks to Léon’s efforts that many of Joyce’s personal possessions and manuscripts still survive today. James Joyce died at the age of fifty-nine, on 13 January 1941 in Schwesterhaus vom Roten Kreuz in Zurich where he and his family had been given asylum. He is buried in Fluntern cemetery, Zurich.”

Week Thirty-Six: “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” by Jimmy Breslin and “Misery” by Anton Chekhov

 

 

Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor” by Jimmy Breslin

 

From The World of Jimmy Breslin:

In the 1960s, as the once-proud New York Herald Tribune spiraled into bankruptcy, the brightest light in its pages was an ebullient young columnist named Jimmy Breslin. While ordinary columnists wrote about politics, culture, or the economy, Breslin’s chief topics were the city and Breslin himself. He was chummy with cops, arsonists, and thieves, and told their stories with grace, wit, and lightning-quick prose. Whether covering the five boroughs, Vietnam, or the death of John F. Kennedy, Breslin managed to find great characters wherever he went.

Today, let’s take a look at one of Breslin’s signature pieces, via that underappreciated art form, the obituary.

We’ll examine the passing of the well-known Irish American John F. Kennedy, and how one newspaper column can teach us how to write with loving attention to the everyday person.

Here is “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” by Jimmy Breslin. Breslin himself passed away just last March.

What do you notice?

 

jfk-anniversary

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, at the funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Breslin captured not only the call of duty through the musings of Pollard, the gravedigger, but also the uncertainty and grief of Jackie Kennedy through a touching description of the widow’s timid movements at the ceremony.

 

Here is one book club reaction from Wonderlings member Rick Williams:

I read this beautiful selection while pumping on an exercise bike as I listened to Beethoven’s 5th symphony on my headphones. Words and music can inspire me to a more intense workout. Ironically, even though I’m on a bike that is going no where, the words and music transport me to an imaginary world like a Twilight Zone episode.

Jimmy Breslin contrasts the death of the most powerful man in the world with his gravedigger. Three times, the author mentions the diggers salary of $3.01 per hour.
And twice Clifton Pollard responded that “it was an honor” for him.

While reading this obituary, I saw “John John” salute his father’s coffin. And then Hamlet talking to Ophelia’s gravedigger while looking at the court jesters Yorick’s skull.

It is etiquette to wipe off the fitness machines after using. I’m typically forgetful or superficial at best. But this time, I was amazingly patient and thorough making sure I did not miss a spot. I even took a measure of pride in this lowly job. My favorite part was when Breslin describes how Clifton and Jackie were similar in being quietly conscientious and wanting to do the right thing.

In my imaginary world, Jackie goes out of her way to meet Clifton. She shakes his hand, simply says “thank you” and gives him a memento from the President. Of course the grave digger responds “thank you, it was my honor.”   – Rick Williams, Wonderlings member

 

. . .A Bit About The Author . . .

breslin.jpg.size.custom.crop.850x567

The intrepid Jimmy Breslin

 

Jimmy Breslin was the biggest, the baddest, the brashest, the best columnist in New York City.

And the first to say so, too.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former Daily News columnist died Sunday at age 88, leaving an unparalleled legacy as an unyielding chronicler of his hometown and an inspiration for a generation of writers, reporters and readers left to mourn his loss and envy his unmatched prose.

Armed with just a pen and pad, Breslin’s one-man beat covered the five borough’s streets, courthouses and barrooms, while inevitably uncovering a story that left the city’s press corps lagging far behind.

He was an unmade bed of a reporter with an unkempt mane of hair, unflinchingly speaking truth to power, exposing corruption and cheering the underdog across four decades.

To call the proudly blue-collar Breslin larger than life was pure understatement.

“It feels like 30 people just left the room,” said Pete Hamill, a Breslin colleague and contemporary, after learning of his death.”¹

 

“Misery” by Anton Chekhov

 

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A Sledge of the 1800’s, this one in Siberia

 

“Misery” by Anton Chekhov is a sort of “silent obituary of the heart.” It’s also one of the most highly anthologized and studied short stories from the Russian literary canon.

One question to ponder as you read: how do we grieve?

Let’s follow Iona the sledge driver, as he navigates one winter evening of his life.

HERE is “Misery” by Anton Chekhov

 

“Misery” follows one evening in the life of the sledge man, Iona.  Iona’s son recently died. He desperately and unsuccessfully tries to have a talk with the people he meets and tell them of how shattered he is. He ends up talking to his horse.²

Breslin’s Clifton Pollard and the main character of Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” share common ground. Both are the salt of the earth; one a grave digger at Arlington Cemetary, one a sledge driver; both paying last respects to someone dear who was lost.

Yet both forgotten by society; the dead, both beloved sons in different ways. One is a darling of the nation, the other an unknown but beloved son, whose father’s grief is fathomless.

How do you grieve?

Said Shabnam Mirchandani on The Wonderlings Book Club Facebook Page:

I think the language of the deepest grief is silence. The indifference of others and the unabashed lack of empathy for the driver’s loss is unfortunately the way of the world. Isolation usually accompanies grief and traumatic loss. It is so poignant that the mare is the only audience for the driver to vent his sorrow to. I think this experience is integral to the human condition, and when there is poverty, the suffering is made worse by indignity.

I can’t help thinking of certain countries of the world as entities who are experiencing a violent passing of a “civilized’ persona” and are seemingly helpless and voiceless in the face of this (figurative) carnage.The grief of their citizens is filled with helplessness and fury, but does not seem capable of creating a shift toward a more viable system . . .

– Shabnam Mirchandani, The Wonderlings

 

 

Thanks to all who read and commented this week on our Facebook Page!

 

. . .A Bit About The Author . . .

 

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A young Chekhov (Source: Wikicommons)

 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov January – 15 July 1904)was a Russian playwright and short story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. His career as a playwright produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics.

Along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov is often referred to as one of the three seminal figures in the birth of early modernism in the theatre. Chekhov practiced as a medical doctor throughout most of his literary career.

Chekhov renounced the theatre after the reception of The Seagull in 1896, but the play was revived to acclaim in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently also produced Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and premiered his last two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. These four works present a challenge to the acting ensemble as well as to audiences, because in place of conventional action Chekhov offers a “theatre of mood” and a “submerged life in the text.”

Chekhov had at first written stories only for financial gain, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story.[9] He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.³

 

 

 

¹The New York Daily News, March 19, 2017 by Justin Silverstein and Larry McShane

², ³ Wikipedia

Week Thirty Four: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates

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Harper Perennial edition, 2007

“Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right . . .”

Thus begins “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” — a classic and often-anthologized short story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Is this fable? Allegory? Urban Legend? All three? Let us know your thoughts

Read Oates’ story HERE.

“The story first appeared in the Fall 1966 edition of Epoch magazine. It was inspired by four Tucson, Arizona murders committed by Charles Schmid, which were profiled in Life magazine in an article written by Don Moser on March 4, 1966.

Considerable academic analysis has been written about the story, with scholars divided on whether it is intended to be taken literally or as allegory. Several writers focus on the series of numbers written on Friend’s car, which he indicates are a code of some sort, but which is never explained:

“‘Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey,’ Arnold Friend explained. He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17 and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that, but she didn’t think much of it.” (p. 41)

Literary scholars have interpreted this series of numbers as different Biblical references, as an underlining of Friend’s sexual deviancy, or as a reference to the ages of Friend and his victims.

The narrative has also been viewed as an allegory for initiation into sexual adulthood,[5] an encounter with the devil, a critique of modern youth’s obsession with sexual themes in popular music, or as a dream sequence.”¹

Did you know that “Where Are You Going…” is dedicated Bob Dylan?

Says Oates:

“Baby Blue” didn’t directly influence my short story, which was inspired by a Life magazine article about a serial killer in Tucson, Ariz., but the song’s soul and poetic rhythm were very seductive.

I loved the song’s surreal quality and Dylan’s couplets: “The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.” Or “Strike another match, go start anew,” which suggests renewal and beginning again, only to resolve with the blunt “And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

The beauty of the song is that you can never quite comprehend it. We know only that something is over: “The lover who just walked out your door / Has taken all his blankets from the floor / The carpet, too, is moving under you.” A powerful evocation of losing control, of losing everything.”²

. . .For further study . . .

Check out Celestial Timepiece, a brilliant website devoted to all things Joyce Carol Oates.

  . . .A bit about Joyce Carol Oates . . .

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Photograph from the New York Times

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. (Harper Collins)

Bonus Clip: Joyce Carol Oates at home:

¹ Wikipedia

²Celestial Timepiece (an authorized Joyce Carol Oates Website)

 

Week Thirty Two: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen-Macdonald-H-is-for-Hawk

 

H is for Hawk takes us on the path of a daughter’s grief, as she searches for an elusive author and wisdom from a goshawk named Mabel.

 

British author Helen Macdonald is the author of the book H is for Hawk. The memoir tells the story of the year Macdonald mourned the sudden death of her father.
A long-time falconer, Macdonald’s grieving process was aided by the presence of the young goshawk, Mabel.
Macdonald recounts how she worked with the young bird, and what lessons it taught her about life.
Her book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year award, among other honors.
Here’s an excerpt from H is for Hawk. Let us know what you think, as we untethered Wonderlings make our way into the territory of award-winning nature writing!

Read an excerpt of Macdonalds’ book, HERE.

 

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Helen MacDonald, from H is for Hawk, Grove Atlantic

 

H is for Hawk describes the year Macdonald spent training Mabel, yet ultimately this part of the story becomes mere scaffolding for the greater spiritual quest Macdonald undertakes. The winner of several prestigious awards, the book is also memoir of Macdonald’s search for understanding as she follows in the footsteps of the elusive author T.H. White, who penned not only The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, but also The Goshawk , which is White’s own account of time spent mastering a bird of prey named Gos.  It’s interesting to compare the two works in terms of their common vocabulary of grief and ultimate recognition of what, in life and death, can and cannot be mastered.

 

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Read one of many gorgeous prose passages from Macdonald’s book:

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers. She is wearing jesses, and the man holds them. For one awful, long moment she is hanging head-downward, wings open, like a turkey in a butcher’s shop, only her head is turned right-way-up and she is seeing more than she has ever seen before in her whole short life. Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room. Then it was a box. But now it is this, and she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in it that are white scraps of gulls. Everything startling and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain.

 

. . .Part eulogy, part nature journal, part spiritual resuscitation and part tribute to the brokenhearted and misunderstood, Macdonald’s visceral, feral, metaphoric vocabulary is not only one of falconry but of healing.

 

goshawk

Goshawk

. . .A bit about the author . . .

 

Helen Macdonald is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is best known as the author of H is for Hawk, which won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award. In 2016, it also won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France. (Wikipedia)

Week Thirty: “Trifles/A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell, “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser, and “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

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“A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell

“A Jury of Her Peers” is a short story by Susan Glaspell, loosely based upon an actual murder in 1900.
Glaspell covered the news story while working as a journalist for the Des Moines newspaper in Iowa.
In 1916 Glaspell wrote the account as a one-act play entitled “Trifles” for the Provincetown Players.
She later adapted it into the short story presented here for you today.
This story is often anthologized in “Best of” compilations. Glaspell would later go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her other work.
Join Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters as they investigate a run-down home where something went terribly wrong, in “A Jury of Her Peers!”

 

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What do you think happened?

Study Questions:

  • Why is this psychological play named “Trifles?”
  • Explore the title “A Jury of Her Peers.”
  • Why was this considered an early feminist play?
  • What does the first sentence reveal about the character of Mrs. Hale, and how is this fleshed out or supported by later descriptions of her character and thought process, in the story?

 

. . .A bit about Susan Glaspell . . .

 

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Photograph of Susan Glaspell taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE Magazine, 1940

According to a brief biography by Krystal Nies, Susan Glaspell was born in Iowa and raised by a conservative family with a modest income.

After receiving a degree from Drake University, she became a reporter for the Des Moines News. According to the Susan Glaspell Society, she worked as a reporter for less than two years, then quit the job to focus on her creative writing. Her first two novels, The Glory of the Conquered and The Visioning were published while Glaspell was in her 30s.

 

 

 

The Provincetown Players

While living and writing in Iowa, Glaspell met George Cram Cook, the man who would become her husband. Both wanted to rebel from their conservative upbringing. They met in a socialist society during a time when Cook had divorced for a second time and longed to experience a rural, commune lifestyle. However, his series of divorces conflicted with the traditional values of Iowa, and so the newly married couple traveled to Greenwich Village. (Susan Glaspell Society).

According to “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door,” Cook and Glaspell were the creative force behind a new style of American theater.

In 1916 she and a group of writers, actors, and artists co-founded the Provincetown Players. Both Glaspell and her husband, as well as other drama icons such as Eugene O’Neill, created plays that experimented with both realism and satire. Eventually, the Provincetown Players gained fame and economic success which, according to Cook, led to disagreements and disenchantment.

Glaspell and her husband left the Players and traveled to Greece in 1922. Cook, shortly after achieving his life long dream to become a shepherd, died two years later. Glaspell returned to America in 1924 and continued to write. Her work focused more on her best selling novels, but also included a Pulitzer Prize winning play, Alison’s House.

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The Origin of “Trifles”

“Trifles” is currently Glaspell’s most popular play. Like other works of early feminist writing, it was rediscovered and embraced by the academic community. One of the reasons for this short play’s enduring success is that it is not only an insightful commentary on the different perceptions of each gender, but it’s also a compelling crime drama that leaves audiences discussing what happened and whether or not the characters acted unjustly.

While working as a journalist for the Des Moines Daily News, Susan Glaspell covered the arrest and trial of Margaret Hossack who was accused of murdering her husband. According to a summary by True Crime: An American Anthology:

“Sometime around midnight on December 1, 1900 John Hossack, a well-to-do, 59-year-old Iowa farmer, was attacked in bed by an axe wielding assailant who literally beat out his brains as he slept. His wife became the prime suspect after neighbors testified to her long-simmering hatred of her abusive spouse.”

The Hossack case, much like the fictionalized case of Mrs. Wright in “Trifles,” became a hotbed of debate. Many people sympathized with her, seeing her as a victim in an abusive relationship. Others doubted her claims of abuse, perhaps focusing on the fact that she never confessed, always claiming that an unknown intruder was responsible for the murder.

True Crime: An American Anthology explains that Mrs. Hossack was found guilty, but a year later her conviction was overturned. The second trail resulted in a hung jury and she was set free.¹

 

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Learn more about Susan Glaspell at The International Susan Glaspell website.

“Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser

 

Looking for a pairing for this week’s story, “A Jury of Her Peers?” If so, here’s another poem by Ted Kooser: “Abandoned Farmhouse.”

Abandoned Farmhouse
By Ted Kooser

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1980 by Ted Kooser.

Learn more about Ted Kooser HERE.

 

“The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

 

Music by Bernd Wahlbrink

Did you know Ted Kooser received inspiration for his poem “Abandoned Farmhouse”  from an actual farmhouse he passed on his daily morning walks? And he received inspiration from Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.”

“The Listeners”

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

 

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. . .A bit about Walter de la Mare . . .

walterdelamare

Photograph of de la Mare by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Walter John de la Mare (25 April 1873 – 22 June 1956) was an English poet, short story writer and novelist. He is probably best remembered for his works for children, for his poem “The Listeners”, and for a highly acclaimed selection of subtle psychological horror stories, amongst them “Seaton’s Aunt” and “All Hallows”.

His 1921 novel Memoirs of a Midget won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction,and his post-war Collected Stories for Children won the 1947 Carnegie Medal for British children’s books.

 

Walter de la Mare was also a notable writer of ghost stories. Although de la Mare wrote a number of them, only a select few are considered to aspire to elicit terror in the reader, with most instead essaying a type of dream-like melancholy and mystery. His collections Eight Tales, The Riddle and Other Stories, The Connoisseur and Other Stories, On the Edge and The Wind Blows Over all contain a few ghost stories each.
¹Biographical information about Susan Glaspell from THOUGHTCO.

 

 

 

 

 

Week Twenty: “Coming Home Again” by Chang-rae Lee and “The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

 

 

 

 

“Coming Home Again” by Chang-rae Lee

 

What purpose do food and travel writing serve, when an author is grieving?

 

Today’s piece focuses on author Chang-rae Lee’s preparation of traditional Korean family foods when his mother becomes very ill.

Not everyone is a master chef. Some of us hack and chop and frizzle away. The author’s frustration is, in fact, at his at his inability to understand and prepare the great traditional meal. It is an imperfect language, excavating Lee’s frustration and struggle to articulate that as a young son he didn’t appreciate her love, sacrifice and self-effacement in the face of his own hubris. The metaphor is that of food and trying to duplicate the family meal and in part, failing. The agony of that.


“I would enter the kitchen quietly and stand beside her, my chin lodging on the point of her hip.” “The bone fell away, though not completely” Then later, “careful not to dislodge the bones, I asked her why it was important that they remain connected.”


It may be useful to compare Lee’s piece with Momaday’s  “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman” in terms of the bones in the land; and that the chronology of events shifts back and forth via flashbacks yet all of the times are woven together to create, in the mind’s eye, that thing, that awareness, which had never been seen.
The final spectral image of the parents pulled over in the car and the son (in a different age) driving by and “seeing” them is the culminating image of his mourning. It is a synthesis.
It is not so much a piece about cooking as it is about coming to terms with the unfamiliar, death, (the tenor) in terms of the familiar, traditional Korean cooking (the vehicle).


The shadow-side failure at trying to say to someone, ” I love and respect you” through the preparation of a traditional meal for a mother, a child, who will not eat.

His clumsy, imperfect mourning via cooking to understand his stalwart mother’s impermanence.

Here is “Coming Home Again” by Chang-Rae Lee.

The piece was originally featured in The New Yorker Magazine, October 16, 1995.

Let us know what you think!

 

 

 

. . .A bit about Chang-rae Lee . . .

 

Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee by photographer Peter Murphy

Chang-rae Lee (born July 29, 1965) is a Korean American novelist and a professor of creative writing at Stanford University,.[1] He was previously Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton and director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing.

Lee was born in South Korea in 1965 to Young Yong and Inja Hong Lee. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old.

Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won numerous awards including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Lee explores issues central to the Asian American experience: the legacy of the past; the encounter of diverse cultures; the challenges of racism and discrimination, and exclusion; dreams achieved and dreams deferred. In the process of developing and defining itself, then, Asian American literature speaks to the very heart of what it means to be American. The authors of this literature above all concern themselves with identity, with the question of becoming and being American, of being accepted, not “foreign.” Lee’s writings have addressed these questions of identity, exile and diaspora, assimilation, and alienation.¹

 

 

“The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

 

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A barbecue shack near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) for the Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress)

 

By 1953 Carson McCullers’s dysfunctional marriage was at a breaking point. During a summer in Paris she and her husband were both drinking heavily, and Carson found out that Reeves had (once again) forged Carson’s name on checks. He attempted to kill himself and tried to talk Carson into committing suicide with him. She fled Paris alone and returned to the United States.

Around the same time, Holiday magazine had offered Carson McCullers fifteen hundred dollars to write a piece on Georgia where she returned in November to gather materials and memories.

While staying with friends McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide in the Hôtel Chateau Frontenac on November 18.

Although her hosts initially urged her to remain at their home to recover from the shock, McCullers insisted on going to visit Hervey Cleckley, a friend who was also a psychiatrist. Cleckley, who was busy at work (with coauthor Corbett H. Thigpen) on his book The Three Faces of Eve, later told Carr that he and McCullers discussed his research in psychopathology and talked at length about Reeves’s suicide. Their conversations helped McCullers understand both her husband and their relationship, as she later described in her unfinished memoir:

 

 

 

 

McCullers (enduring what seems to be a rather uncomfortably close interview) about “The Member of The Wedding.” McCullers states that the basic premise of the play was just “to belong- to be a part of something; a part of life.” Perhaps this is also true of those who write about food and cultural tradition when they are grieving.

 

 

“Hervey Cleckley has written a masterful book called The Mask of Sanity, and in that book I could see Reeves mirrored. Psychopathic people are very often charming. They live on their charm, their good looks and the weaknesses of wives or mothers.”

 

McCullers finally returned to Nyack, NY at the end of November—and the next day The New York Times published her husband’s obituary, which suggested as a possible cause of death injuries suffered from a car accident several weeks before. Yet the actual cause was hardly a secret to the couple’s acquaintances and, amidst the deluge of calls and condolences, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief among some of McCullers’s friends. Carr reports that the actress Helen Hayes, who also lived in Nyack, dropped by and told Carson’s mother, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry, Bebe, because I don’t think I am.”

 

McCullers soon returned to the task of writing the food article for Holiday, and she completed a version in early 1954. The events of the previous year surely explain the wistful and somewhat melancholy tone, and the essay was rejected because the magazine was “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”²

 

Here is “The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers

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McCullers at a gathering with Isak Dinesen, author of “Babette’s Feast,” Out of Africa, and many other works including gothic tales which pair nicely with a read of U.S. Southern Gothic.

 

McCullers’ bittersweet narration (recovering from her spouses’ suicide and reeling from a bitter marriage), evokes a longing. She discusses regional foods and all but also gets to the heart of longing; using the communal (or isolated) act of eating; of belonging or not belonging in a household, a family, a community. Of again, not the rosy magazine-slick travelogue her editors were expecting (this piece was ultimately rejected and was not published in Holiday Magazine) a much more meaningful exploration of cooking and dining as it expresses friendship, marriage, widowhood, isolation, etc. Again, the shadow side of the meal.

Consider an old man who has just lost his wife, slumped in a wheelchair, trying to “enjoy” a steak at a family picnic and not wanting to chat but doing his best to make pleasant small talk. The Vietnam Vet at a Christmas party. One is perhaps able to move past the facade of emotionless silence to sense a great chasm of grief which was inarticulate as both Lee and McCullers went through the motions of describing and preparing food. The beauty was not in the eloquence or grammar nor in the perfect execution of a meal (although McCullers seems much more master of that!) but in the simple recounting of how they could NOT function normally.

So often today we have celebrity chefs and Food TV gurus, who “Celebrate Holidays!” and take smiling to another extreme with “Today on our show: Traditional Foods!” . . .it’s all so flouride-whitened. Perhaps these pieces are the yin to that yang. The power in the taking in of nourishment but not the outward power of flawlessly preparing it. The clinging, barely, to the memory of fruit, the children’s treats, the holiday punch, as a rote attempt to return to normalcy and be nourished.

The foods and their memories and preparation become, perhaps, a sort of prayer for healing.

 

. . .A bit about Carson McCullers . . .

 

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Carson McCullers by Henri Cartier Bresson

Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the U.S. South. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep south.

McCullers’ oeuvre is often described as Southern Gothic and indicative of her southern roots. However, McCullers penned all of her work after leaving the South, and critics also describe her writing and eccentric characters as universal in scope. Her stories have been adapted to stage and film. A stagework of her novel The Member of the Wedding (1946), which captures a young girl’s feelings at her brother’s wedding, made a successful Broadway run in 1950–51.³

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ Source: Wikipedia

²Summarized from The Library of America

³Wikipedia