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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Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.

A Writer and a City, Part 1

There are many things to say about 2018. It was weird and piecemeal and full of ragtag moments like most years are; nothing makes much sense while we’re living it.  But as I’ve spent some time looking back, shining lights begin to emerge. 2018 had its fair share of dark moments but it’s the illuminating ones that shed a soft, pleasant glow and give me some hope for next year. Two stars that stand out boldly in my 2018 are a writer and a place– Eileen Chang and New Orleans. Both were entirely new to me until I read and visited them this year and both gave back to me pieces of myself, pieces that wandered lonely and at odds until I met one in text and the other one in person.

I’ll start with 張愛玲 — Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang rose to prominence in in China during the 1940’s. She wrote primarily about life in Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in her essays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was an extremely popular writer and it’s not hard to see why– her prose carries the reader away. It is beautiful within itself; it creates romance and sensuality and somehow this sharpens the cruelty of her characters.

I began reading her writing this summer, starting with Love in a Fallen City (trans. Karen Kingsbury), a book of her collected short stories. The first story is entitled “Aloeswood Incense” and in it, we meet Ge Weilong, a girl who wishes to stay in Hong Kong and keep up on her studies. Her family is moving to Shanghai and so she appeals to her estranged aunt Madame Liang for help. Liang considers.

One of Madame Liang’s delicate hands held the banana-leaf fan by the stem.  As she twirled it around, thin rays of light shone through the slits in the leaf, spinning across her face.

“Miss,’ she said, ‘it seems you’ve thought of everything except my own position in this matter.  Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. If your father finds out, he’ll say I’ve seduced a girl from a good family and stolen her away.  What am I to your family? A willful degenerate who ruined the family honor—refused the man chosen by my brothers, went to Liang as his concubine instead, lost face for a family that already on the way down. Bah! These declining old families, they’re like out-house bricks, pure petrified stink.  You were born too late—you missed all the fuss, and didn’t get to hear what your father said to me then!’‘

“Father’s got that stuffy old bookish way of thinking, and he won’t change for anyone.  He doesn’t know how to moderate his speech—no wonder Aunt is angry.  But it’s been so many years, and you’re a generous, fair-minded person—would you bear this grudge against the younger generation?”

“Yes, I would! I like to chew on this rotten little memory! I won’t forget what he said to me then!’ She waved the fan, and the yellow rays of sunlight filtered through it onto her face, like tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.

Her fiction is full of rich, revealing dialogue and wonderful touches of details like the above “tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.”  Such writing translates well to screen: she wrote ten scripts and eight were made into movies.

With her splendid, icy prose that cuts like a hot, tempered blade (and since this is a translation, I wonder what reading her in the original Chinese must be like), Chang is an author that I’ve been searching for a very long time. There are times in her writing that her magnificent intelligence vaults above and beyond itself and enters into that other strange, wonderful world that is genius. The excerpt below is from her short story “Jasmine Tea” which centers on a lonely and abused young man, Nie Chuanqing.

He left his hands where they were, pinched by the lid of the trunk.  His head drooped, as if he’d broken his neck.  His gown of lined blue silk had a stiff standing collar, and the strong, hot sun shone down inside it, warming the back of his neck. He had a strange feeling, though, that the sky would soon be dark…that already it was dark.  As he waited all alone by the window, his heart darkened along with the sky.  An unspeakable, dusky anguish… Just as in a dream, that person waiting by the window was at first himself, and then in an instant he could see, very clearly, that it was his mother.  Her long bangs swept down in front of her bowed head, and the pointed lower half of her face was a vague white shadow.  Her eyes and eyebrows, so clouded and dim, were like black shadows in moonlight.  But he knew for a certainty that it was his dead mother, Feng Biluo.

He hadn’t had a mother since he was four years old, but he recognized her from her photograph.  There was only one photo that showed her before her marriage,  and in it she wore an old-style satin jacket embroidered with the faint shapes of tiny bats.  The figure in the window was growing clearer now, and he could see the bats on the autumn-colored silk of her jacket.  She was waiting for someone, waiting for news.  She knew that the news wouldn’t come.  In her heart the sky was slowly darkening—Chuanqing flinched in pain. He couldn’t tell whether it was really his mother, or himself.

But the nameless anguish pressing down on him? He knew now that was love, a hopeless love some twenty years in the past.  A knife will rust after twenty years, but it’s still a knife.  The knife in his mother’s heart now twisted in his.

With an enormous effort, Chuanqing lifted his head.  The entire illusion rapidly melted away.  He had felt, for a moment, like an old-time portrait photographer, his head thrust into a tunnel of black cloth: there in the lens he’d caught a glimpse of his mother.  He pulled his hands out from under the lid of the trunk; pressing them to his lips, he sucked fearfully at the red marks.

Chuanqing knew very little about his mother, but he did know that she had never loved his father. And so his father hated her.  After she had died, he turned his fury against her child; otherwise, even with the stepmother egging him on, Chuanqing’s father wouldn’t have become so vicious towards him.

After finishing Love in a Fallen City, I went to Written on Water, her book of essays. There’s a warmth in her essays, a friendly voice compared to those in her short stories and I was delighted to read her takes on apartment living in the city, her views on fashion, culture, film, and art. She takes essay writing to a new level and I’m still working to understand how she used the essay form to her own ends and gave it such satisfying endings. Below is an excerpt from “Note on Apartment Life.”

I like to listen to city sounds.  People more poetic than I listen from their pillows to the sound of rustling pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t fall asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars.  On the hills in Hong Kong, it was only in the winter when the north wind blew all night long through the evergreens that I was reminded of the charming cadence of a streetcar.  People who have lived their entire lives amid the bustle of the city do not realize what exactly they cannot do without until they have left.  The thoughts of city people unfold across a striped curtain.  The pale white stripes are streetcars in motion, moving neatly in parallel, their streams of sound flowing continuously into subconscious strata.

There is something exceedingly special about Eileen Chang. To read her stories is to be drawn into a special place that is both beautiful, terrifying, and completely intoxicating. I cannot recommend her highly enough.

 

Cover Image: a Polaroid taken of a screenshot with downloaded image of Eileen Chang’s photograph– a sort of copy of a copy that mirrors the reading of a translated work.