Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Summer Reading Continued…

I heard Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Sackhouse series) speak a few nights ago. Her recommendation on how to get yourself to write: “Put up or shut up” made me consider the same. Harris was a funny speaker and she had that gentle southern drawl I remember so well in my own grandmother’s voice. Harris is very sparky and alive and it’s easy to see how Sookie is her brain-child. She insisted that all her characters were different parts of herself and I liked that idea too.  My only sorrow was hearing that she’s going to discontinue the Harper and Tolliver series after this next book. Harris has done a lot of series besides just Sookie and this other series centers around Harper and her stepbrother Tolliver. Harper got hit by lightening as a teen and ever since then can sense where dead people are and how they died. The series centers around herself and her brother (her sidekick) traveling around the US helping people find their dead loved ones or Harper being able to tell how that loved one died (if there are any questions). Needless to say, they’re surrounded by controversy and the fundamentalist community does not take kindly to them though they want to find their dead loved ones as much as anyone else. It’s a dark series and sometimes hard to read…though that didn’t stop me from reading each book in one day! Harris related in her talk that each book took tons of work since each book opens up with a whole new cast of characters besides the mainstays, Harper and Tolliver. And there’s the completely new setting besides that too and she’s found it’s just too much work. But she promised a new series after this since she always works away at two series at a time. You gotta wonder what her quirky mind will cook up next. I’m looking forward to it!

Mixed in while reading that series, I picked up Greenery Street by Denis MacKail. Now I have to admit, when I started this book, I was a little worried it might be too sugary. But I continued on and I’m so glad I did. Greenery Street is a comedy and a loving one at that. It centers on a couple, Felicity and Ian Foster, as they settle into their first home and it’s about all the little kinks and the maddenings parts that couples get to work out together. I alternately wanted to shake Felicity and then Ian and then Ian and then Felicity, etc, etc but in a laughing way and not at all violently! P.G. Wodehouse adored this book and it’s not hard to see why. Isn’t that endorsement enough?

A month ago or so, I claimed I would read all of L.M. Montgomery books in a week. A little foolhardy. I didn’t do that but I’ve been steadily chewing through them since I wrapped up Harris’ series and Greenery Street.  I decided to read her books in chronological order using Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery as a companion since it has a chapter on each book. What have I found? I’ve found that Montgomery’s writing takes me towards a mental vacation. There’s something so relaxing and satisfying about her books. Everyday life is the setting and mixed into the everday is nature, sweeping our souls towards the sublime. I really love how she’ll mention someone knitting lace and then a few paragraphs afterward are purple prosy descriptions of the outdoors. Reading her books as a young girl gave me an immense love of the outdoors and nowadays I find that the easiest way to get my head screwed on straight is to take a walk outside. Being outdoors always pulls me towards something bigger than the immediate goings-on. I owe Montgomery a huge debt for what she gave to me when I was a kid.

There’s also been an announcement that Penguin is going to print The Blythes are Quoted in its entirety. It was the final book she completed shortly before her death. Part of it was printed as The Road to Yesterday but a fair amount of the original writing was taken out as being deemed “too dark.” But it’s really excited this is coming out as it shows Montgomery was experimenting and trying new ways of writing.

And well…of course this book would be dark. Montgomery survived two world wars and besides that was addicted or at least heavily on, bromides and barbituates that no doubt led to her early death. She had a son who gave her terrible problems (it’s speculated he was a psychcopath) and her husband lost his  mind a few times. I’ve read through two sets of her journals and wow…she really gave us the joyful part of her in the books. I believe in her later works Montgomery can do tragedy just as well as comedy and I’m looking forward to seeing what this new book will add to the legacy of her writing.

And finally…”I believe you [men] capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
—–— Jane Austen, Persuasion

I could not stop thinking that as I watched “Letter from an Unknown Woman” directed by Max Ophuls and taken from a short story by Stefan Zweig. (sorta spoilers? beware) The movie is taken from the viewpoint of a letter, written by a woman while she is dying to her former lover who has completely forgotten her. It is the story of a loving and noble person who is never recognized for her value. Her letter ends in “Oh, if only you could’ve recognized what was always yours, could’ve found what was never lost. If only…” I managed to somehow not cry at the end though her faithless lover didn’t quite manage that himself. This is such a beautiful film and though it’s sad, it does end with a splendid cry of hope.

Comments (3):

  1. Amy

    August 19, 2009 at 6:26 am

    A thought, spurred by the quote from _Persuasion_: have you read A. S. Byatt’s _Posession_? Given what I’ve seen here in your taste in books, I could see you loving it.

  2. Amy

    August 19, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Of course, if it weren’t 6:30 in the morning, I might spell _Possession_ right. Oops.

  3. christin

    November 15, 2009 at 12:04 am

    I really, really enjoy reading your posts. I wish we lived closer so we could discuss these things over tea & knitting 🙂

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Cracks in Time

There are moments in time where the past overlaps with the present. Sometimes referred to as “thinning of the veil,” they are strange, illusionary moment when one season passes into another, when the silvery full moon shines its brightest, and when firelight flickers warmly in the cold night.

Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness is overtaking the days of light. Icy winter is just beginning to finger the edges of autumn’s beauty. The first frost came a few days ago and over the weekend, I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by the sight of downy snowflakes falling weighted from a heavy sky.

As the days grow shorter, I catch glimpses of color and movement out of the corner of my eye. I can’t say what I’m seeing exactly—perhaps it is the corners of autumn on the wane, the earth shedding its summer glory before it falls still. Perhaps I’m seeing the fast flicker of days as they shorten, when sunset comes around 5PM instead of later hours.

Whatever it is, I feel the shift and though it’s a cycle I’ve witnessed my whole life, there is something unearthly about the shift, as if something strange is lurking in the off edges of the exchanging cycles. There are tiny spaces in the exchange, little windows that open up into another world and as the darkness lengthens, perhaps it is the past that grows a little clearer, a little nearer.

Earlier sunsets and later sunrises means more darkness and with the dark and external stillness arises memories and with memories, the dead rise up. The dead is our own past, old and gone versions of people and ourselves which are still living. What people have been to us, what they have done to us, what we ourselves once were, lives in the murky shadows of memory and as the seasons change, one foot treading precariously before another, time slides a little and anything is possible.

There are many stories that deal with these strange moments in-between worlds and time.

One of my favorites is Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1924. It deals with the lives with two women, Jan in the 20th century and Juliana in the 18th. The two women never fully see each other, despite their ability to see the past and future, but it is Juliana’s brother, Lucian, that travels through time between them. Jan first encounters him on a stormy afternoon on Hill Street, London. She takes shelter under the doorway of an old, preserved 18th century house and as the rain pours down, he appears near her side. The book follows and explores their strange relationships.

Another book about curious women existing in that magical land in-between words is The Brontes Went to Woolsworths by Rachel Ferguson. The three Carne sisters live in pre-war London. One is a journalist, one a young actress and the last is still under the care of a governess. They make up stories as they have done since they were very young, one particularly long lasting imagery saga about a real life judge they read regularly about in the papers. When they meet the judge’s very real wife, problems ensue and during a dark night, two of the Bronte sisters appear on their doorstep. Take a guess which two.

And of course, any list about the stories that deal with past impinging on the present would be incomplete with The Turn of the Screw. One of Henry James’ most popular short stories, The Turn of the Screw is narrated by a very young and sweet governess who isn’t entirely sure what she is seeing or what is going on with the two children she looks after.  The three (including a housekeeper and a few servants that are rarely mentioned) live in a great empty house but after a short while there, the governess begins to see lone figures in what should be empty spaces—the top of a turret, in front of a drawing room window overlooking the lawn, by the side of a still pond. She is never able to catch and speak to them for they always disappear and slowly, she gathers that these figures are not quite human nor, is the rumor, were they that human when they were alive neither. What follows is questions of belief, what is real and what is not, and the end plays out the consequences of her decisions.

Earlier than James’ spine tingling story is The Christmas Carol, a ghost story that largely takes place at night by the master of Victorian ghost stories, Charles Dickens. His lesser known Ghost Stories are a delight. The characters in his haunted tales travel through dreams, moonlight, firelight and meet all sorts of ghosts and other sorts of beings. My favorite “The Queer Chair” occurs when man dozing at night realizes that an old, quaint chair in his room has come to life and they have a long discussion about the future near the warmth of the fireside.

Another of my favorites is “The Ghosts of a Mail.” A drunk man on his way home decides to take a comfy snooze on the top of a wall overlooking a yard of wrecked and decrepit coaches. He wakes under a full moon only to discover that the coaches are being used once more and goes on to have a wild ride with a beautiful lady trying to escape her pursuers.

Dickens favors the moments between sleeping and waking for his ghosts to appear (his most famous ghost of all Marley can’t resist making his appearance during the ungodly hours) and it is small wonder.

Some of my own most fantastic nightmares, more real than the day, occur when I’ve been dozing off or are just beginning to fall asleep. My mind is in-between places here, not fully in one state nor the other. I’ve seen ghostly sad boys standing by my bed. For decades, my bedroom walls were covered in elegant cursive every morning as I slowly awoke.

M.R. James is another writer that uses the moments in-between sleeping and waking as some of his most terrifying moments. One such story is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor comes across a strange bone whistle on his walk along the English coast and inscribed on it in Latin are the words, “Who is it who is coming?” As he makes his way back from his walk, he blows the whistle a few times. Nothing happens. But that night his bedclothes rise in the form of a blind man and attempt to strangle him.

It Leapt Towards Him in an Instant

Sleeping is dangerous time, indeed.  The mind lives in another realm while the body lies prone. And now as the dark and heavy hours approach, we turn on lights and stay indoors. But those strange corners still remain and in-between our waking hours, we sometimes see them.

The Willows Converse Among Themselves

I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.

There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.

I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.

I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.

With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.

 

茶の煙柳と共にそよぐ也

the tea smoke

and the willow

together trembling

Issa

(Trans. David G. Lanoue)