Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

A dog named Flush

I just finished “Flush”, a novel by Virginia Woolf. I was surprised to run into “Flush” because I’m fairly acquainted with Woolf’s writing (I’m a huge fan of her Common Readers) but I had never heard much about this one. “Flush” is put out by Persephone Books and like all of their books, is a real gem.

Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel given to her a friend to cheer Miss Barrett up while she lay on her invalid bed doing invalid things. Like writing poetry and reading books and having friends occasionally visit while she cocooned herself up in Paisley Shawls. “Flush” then is the biography of Flush himself and it starts out with his ancestry and their love of chasing rabbits and running free as a breeze. Of course, this very great love of chasing things outdoors runs like quicksilver in Flush’s body but he is destined…for other things. And he resigns himself to the fate of living in a stuffy room and mostly eating and lying about. The first half of the book was difficult for me to get through. This clearly is no life for an energetic young dog. He rarely goes out and when he does in a park, it’s on a chain. Oh, Woolf whips it up all right and the puzzled longing of Flush to gallop about and play goes like nails into the heart. He loves Elizabeth, of course, but in his heart lies many turmoils…not just his need to race about in the sun…but there are jealousies and hurt feelings too.

The claustrophobic feel in the first half the book is pretty hard to get through. Elizabeth Barrett is cooped up in a room and sure, it’s been artistically and tastefully decorated but…it’s just one small room. She’s one of many children and an invalid and it’s hard to exactly know why she’s an invalid. She doesn’t feel well most of the time but it’s hard to think who Would feel good trapped up in a room nearly all the time. And why am I throwing conjectures about her when this book is about Flush? The book is about Flush but because he’s in this sweltering atmosphere, it gives us a good idea what Elizabeth Barrett is stuck in as well.

Release comes in the form of Robert Browning, whom Flush despises at first but who ultimately whisks the pair off for a life in Italy and Elizabeth Barrett’s and Flush Barrett’s lives are ultimately changed…

I galloped through the second half, managing to take a little bit of time to linger in the Florence that Flush hustles through everyday and the Apennines which Flush barely concedes to notice but whom his mistress exclaims over…yes, the first half sets the second half off, like a foil for a jewel.

And there really can be no doubt on how Woolf felt about Victorians and their “invalids” and I really cannot forget how sick I felt over the straightened ribs of that lone room, holding dog and mistress in its crush…and now I’m grateful too that at least one woman and one dog escaped that savage confine.

(yes, it is really them!)

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How to Get Through a Big Book

How to get through a Big Book and have a little fun too.

  1. Make and eat food mentioned in the book (big books always include food, usually in meticulous detail).
  2. Read a little bit each day.
  3. Make a soundtrack.
  4. Dress like a character from the book for a day. Or a week. Or a month if it really grabs you.
  5. Ten minutes to kill? Daydream about the landscape or what the characters are seeing as they move through their day.
  6. Read passages you enjoy out loud. If you’re in the right mood, record yourself reading passages and share it (Instagram is great for this). Include illustrations if you like (thank you, Shirin).
  7. Whip out a highlighter or some sticky tabs for those great parts.
  8. Pace yourself and remember, reading gigantic books isn’t a race. It’s about the journey. Might as well bring along snacks, good drinks, great lighting, and enjoy the ride.

How to Search for Story Settings

A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.

There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.

The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants.  And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.

I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.

A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.

The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.

There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s  been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.

A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.