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These texts are available in the Sweet Briar Bookshop.
Click on the images to order the the texts from Amazon.

Looking out the living room window, I watch as Abbott exits the building by the side door located just under our apartment on the fourth floor. He looks up to me at the living room window and blows a kiss to me. I lean out the window, wave down to him, and return the kiss. This is the only reason he exits through that side entrance. He then turns and walks to work while I close the window and begin to tidy the house.

I walk into our private bath and grab a broom out of the closet. I sweep the floor along the way to entry. Once major crumbs from last nights dinner are tidied into a pile, I run the bent tips of the bristles across all the crown moulding along the bottom edges of the walls to ensure no tricky dust particles stayed of what landed there since yesterday. The work is meticulous and particular, but it’s in order to please Abbott and ensure that our living space is immaculate. I round the rooms from the sitting area to the kitchen connected with the dinning room and into the bedroom and end up in the private bath. I place the broom back in the bathroom closet and walk into the bedroom to make our bed. I fold the corners of the bed to align perfectly just as Abbott likes. I glance at the clock Abbott hung on the kitchen wall for me on my birthday last month. It tells me that it’s already past eleven. I hastily get to the stove and grab an apron from the handle before beginning the preparations for Abbott’s lunch.

While softly humming Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 to myself, I scrape a nice cut of butter onto a piece of fresh white bread. I add a slice of his favorite lunchmeat and a lettuce leaf. I wrap up everything in the saran wrap I got at the market yesterday and put it in the metal lunch box before placing it in the big new cooling box. Continue Reading »

The Button Factory

button3Eighteen people. That’s all it took to carry away the place of Roy Gen’s most important memories. He watches the high school football team slide eight long slabs of wood underneath the sagging tin walls and then lift the little building straight off of its sinking concrete foundation. With not even a single grunt of effort, they bear the building, with its broken, wooden windowpanes and faded red trim, onto a waiting trailer.

            In less than fifteen minutes, the trailer, towed by a pale blue pick-up truck, rolls away, the old building perched precariously upon it. In a few hours, it will be sitting in a corner of the Randolph County Heritage Museum. Although Roy knows he has chosen this, a little touch of gloom wraps itself around his heart. Gloom isn’t a feeling he is unfamiliar with; often it comes etched with self-reproach. It is the feeling he gets when he sometimes lingers over the stretch of weed-choked concrete where the grand opera house once stood or on the bank of the Black River where two worn pillars of cement are all that remain of the old train bridge, and especially the empty lot at the corner of Barre and South Marr, the only part of Pocahontas he wants to forget. Roy doesn’t like to think he’s the sentimental type, but it’s hard for an older man born in the early 20’s to not get weighed down with at least a little nostalgia when he lives in Pocahontas, Arkansas.

Pocahontas, Arkansas. A town obsessed with its past. Everywhere you look, nostalgia comes knocking at the door. Perhaps if they had rebuilt something over the old opera house or built new bridges or even put another house on the empty lot, Roy wouldn’t feel these twinges of gloom, but they never did. The “downtown” area, with its tiny, perfectly square blocks and worn brick buildings, half of them boarded up, speak of an older time where businesses were almost entirely local and technology had not yet snatched away the jobs of simple craftsmen. Continue Reading »

“Wendover”

He sat, calmly, rocking. Back and forth; to and fro. The horse underneath him wore four wooden shoes mounted on two curved pieces of pine that let the horse canter. The little light brown suede saddle rested on a green felt saddle pad and the horse himself had a mane made of mangled brown yarn. The boy wore jeans and a black long sleeve even though the playa had heat waves rolling up off of it. His sneakers had faded from white to grey. The boy had been starring off into the distance, rocking, for the past twenty minutes.

Wendover, Utah had been home for the boy’s entire life. The Bonneville Salt Flats were his playground. His dad sold gas at the only Chevron station in town and his mom was a maid at the Super 8. On Wednesday’s they had Taco Bell. The salt flats were both beautiful and ugly, at once. Even when he stood on his tip toes, all the boy could see was nothing. A flat expanse of heat waves and silence. The air was too hot and too dry for most animals, though a few bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and the occasional mountain lion could be found if you wandered far enough out of town. The sky held a blue so bright and vast that the boy would sometimes lie on his back on the flats and feel as if he was drowning. He’d never seen the ocean, though, of course. He imagined it would be something similar. If he lay on the salt for long enough it would begin to itch and tingle against his skin, leaving faint red traces that could only be solved with a shower, lots of lotion, and a nap. Continue Reading »

For my literary theory class this semester, we read “Reading in Slow Motion” by Reuben Brower. In it, he says that to encourage life long readers, reading must be fun. So, it’s the last night of exams and while all of my friends are anxious, frustrated, and exhausted with their essays and sit-downs, I’m happy. What I have to do in order to complete my junior year is finish editing a story, and that doesn’t sound like torture to me. This is what made me pick my major. While all of my friends moan and complain about having 50 pages of reading for this class, and this lame paper for another class for homework, I always chuckle. I get to read stories, and write stories. I get to use my imagination and explore the world from different perspectives, see different places, understand different life conditions… without ever leaving my seat. Every reading is a journey. Every story I write is fun. It isn’t always easy, and there’s often a lot of work, but if it’s enjoyable work, is it even really work at all?

Vandals

Well, that was scandalous. And uncomfortable. In reading “Vandals” I came to understand a few things. 1. There is a lot of death in this story. 2. There is a hint of pedophilia in this story. 3. There’s a case of breaking, entering, and vandalizing in this story. After realizing these things, I began to wonder, “Why?”

Within this collection of stories by Munro, we’ve read stories that were uncomfortable before. There’s been sex, death, gore. You name it, she wrote about it. Perhaps because she’s a seasoned writer and at some point in time these areas become interesting. Or, perhaps, it’s because she has the writing ability to hint at something without saying it outright. On other occasions Munro has written in a way that let the reader know exactly what was going on without explicitly saying that the man in the seat next to Rose on the train sexually assaults (even, possibly, rapes) her in “Wild Swans.”

In “Vandals” there is a scene at the waters edge that takes place in the past when Bea and Liza were younger. Though the scene doesn’t specifically mention sex, there’s an undercurrent of discomfort while Ladner watches the young girls swim. “He made a pretend grab at her, to get her between the legs … He was quite ordinary again, a serious work-man, slightly fed up with all their foolishness.” There isn’t much detail, but in the pages following Liza remembers a Barbie-doll dress and a prize she won in the second grade. Knowing the age of Liza puts an emphasis on the inappropriateness of Ladner’s touch. The details are small and infrequent but the reader begins to question the frequency of this kind of event, and in turn, understand why Liza vandalizes the house.

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I Had A Dream

Everything was different. She could see endless possibilities because she was looking into his eyes. He was a newborn, clean from the turmoil that came from living. In those moments of holding him for the first time she knew, she knew for sure that perfection did exist. It existed with birth, with the innocence birth represented. It was an immediate connection and an undeniable love. He was her gift from the Universe, from God. That was the day she knew for sure there was a God and that she had been entrusted in that moment to watch over and protect her son.

He lay curled and cradled in her arms perfectly, as if her arms were created specifically for his comfort. He smiled at her as if she was everything, and it was the most beautiful smile she had ever seen, with or without teeth.

“Your eyes sparkle life,” she whispered to him.

Rick re-entered the room clutching a bottle of water, “I know I’m a wuss, but I’m back now,” he said referring to his fainting scene, the birth had been too much for him. “Wow,” he said as he approached his family. “He’s perfect, Holland,” he said staring into his son’s honey brown eyes that echoed laughter. “He has your eyes, babe.”

“Really.” Holland asked, “Do you think so?”

Rick was mesmerized by life. “Definitely, honey.”

                     ******

           Holland’s thoughts continued to circle around her circumstances as she sat at the kitchen’s island. The new life she had had left her to crawl to North Miami, where she took up sanctuary with her half-sister Brea. They were both the daughters of Evelyn Shay, but while Brea’s father was a tall bulky black man, Holland’s father was a short Irish man. Holland’s biological father was a mystery to her, she only knew that he resided in Ireland and had known her mother for all of 24-hours before they never saw one another again. Regardless of Evelyn’s infidelity Holland’s dad had been Brea’s father.

Her sister’s home was a lovely reward in the divorce and it was a great treasure to own. It had originally been a summer house, designed to fit Brea’s specifications exactly. The exterior of the home was prairie styled, with two floors, and a wide backyard for Hudson, Brea’s golden retriever. The inside of the house reminded Holland of the one from her childhood. The interior colors were soft, the canary blue and oak brown resembling her teenage bedroom. From her old bedroom she had watched as fireworks shot into the sky. She had heard the creaking of the wood floor as her dad had placed Christmas presents under the tree the night before the big day. That room had made her feel as though she lived in the sky with the many wonders of the Universe. She’d wake from the night and wait for the sun to greet her canary blue walls.

The simple square structure of her sister’s house reminded her of the building blocks toddlers often stacked together. It led her to think and so she began to wonder if in fact children represented the wisdom of the world, and adults represented ignorance. Holland felt that she was lacking in intelligence, or rather the understanding of knowledge. She’d graduated from NYU’s School of Medicine at the top of her class, and while that proved she was intelligent it didn’t prove she was smart. It didn’t mean she understood the world, and she desperately wanted to. Babies knew that each day was a happy day, but she yearned to know why one day life was being lived and the next day it was stopped. The bay windows welcomed in the crisp rising sun light as it streamed into the living area. The sun made it official for Holland. It was a new day once again, so she patted herself on the back.

“What are you thinking about?” came Brea’s voice as she glided into the kitchen, dressed in full work-out attire.

Holland shrugged and asked her own question, “How many miles did you get this morning?”

“Three,” Brea said proudly, glistening in perspiration. Holland thought that Brea’s “sweat” was an injustice. How could they share partly the same DNA when Holland was drenched after a run, and her sister looked like she had been sprinkled by a nearby fountain? “You should start running with me, Holls, it’ll take your mind of off things.”

“I’m doing just fine, Brea,” Holland responded leaning against the marble island.

“No you’re not,” Brea said matter-of-factly, “I was a mess after my divorce was finalized.”

“I’m not divorced, Brea.”

Sliding into a bar stool Brea said, “I know, your situation is way worse.”

Holland quirked her lips to the side, “I appreciate that you believe that was an appropriate thing to say to my face, Sis.”

“Well,” Brea began, “If you won’t tell me what you’re thinking about, and you won’t work out with me, you can at least do me one favor.”

“What’s that?”

Brea gave Holland a smile and leaned against the island so that their identical button noses touched, “Have a drink with me.” A drink meant an entire bottle for Brea, “And I’ll bitch about my life!”

How she could celebrate her own downfalls, how she could smile genuinely, Holland wanted that secret, the secret to living.  Even though her sister was notorious for being a wild drunk, Holland thought the idea wasn’t the worse. Her sister was her biggest distraction and that meant that her contemplations could be silenced.

“Fine,” Holland agreed, “But you were probably going to do thisat anyway.”

Brea reached into her “special” cabinet, which she had also got in the divorce, and pulled out a bottle of Merlot. Unscrewing the cork from the mouth, she seemed to exhale when the bottle did. She never once reached for a glass. “Are you going to drink anything?” Brea asked.

Holland groaned and asked her, “So when do you know for sure you’re an alcoholic?”

Brea smirked and replied, “When you make it your lover.”

“Well, then get me a bottle of my own, please.”

“You know my therapist told me I have a deep seated anger and as it’s grown since I was at least ten. Apparently, when you refuse to express the anger you turn out like me, prone to irrational thoughts and behavior.” She gave her sister a bottle of vintage cabernet.

“That sounds about right- wait,” Holland said clearly hearing the statement now, “You have a therapist?”

“How do you think I got over my divorce?” Brea asked her.

Holland guessed, “With a bottle of Merlot.”

“No, with a bottle of ’72 Merlot, it can’t just be any old bottle, Holls,” she sighed, “But in all seriousness, I went to a shrink. I really needed to talk to someone,” she paused before adding, “Hudson can’t respond in English.”

“You needed someone to talk to? Why didn’t you call me, Brea? That was four years ago. I’ve always come to you, even when I had Rick, I talked to you.”

Brea blushed as visibly as a woman of color could, “Because I didn’t want to bother you, the divorce was final. I got everything just the way I wanted it, and I didn’t want to be judged because I missed that bastard.”

Holland sighed, “I’d never-” her voice trailed off and she decided not to finish the sentence, “So, you’re saying that it worked, talking to the shrink?”

“It did, but not in the way the he thought. Now, whenever I think about Kevin Nordom I realize he only ever accomplished two things in his life. Building this house and marrying me. Actually, my therapist says part of my irrationalities come in the form of a minimization thought process.” Brea smiled triumphantly, that meant she couldn’t see past all the wrongs inflicted on her by Kevin, “But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. The longer you stay in your head, Holls the more you run the risk of never dealing with the hand you’ve been dealt.”

 

The hand she had been dealt was ugly. Her life had been filled with magic once and now it was like she was standing outside a graveyard. Brea was her sister, her best friend but even she wasn’t enough. Her heart was gone and she barely had any love left. Rick was her love. She’d fallen head over heels in for him the day they met. It was a typical rainy day in New York, angry people rushing by, taxi’s speeding so fast they couldn’t be flagged down. Holland was running late to hear a lecture from the leading doctor in pediatric surgery, James E. Stein, M.D. No taxi would stop for her, and she had lost her umbrella earlier in the week on the subway. She was so frustrated she thought she would cry, and that’s when Rick pulled up. His motorcycle hit a nearby pothole and splashed Holland in dirty street water, her fury had turned into outrage.

“How could you be so stupid, do you not know how to drive? How can you not see a girl with bright red hair trying to hail a taxi, did you do it on purpose you asshole!?”

He was both apologetic and kind, “I’m sorry, I saw you but I didn’t see the pot hole in time and now you’re soaked. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.”

“Screw the dry cleaning, I’m late for a lecture!”

His eyebrows crinkled in apology, “If you want, I could give you a ride, anywhere you want.” Holland looked at him like he was crazy, “Please, I feel really bad about this entire situation.”

Holland sighed, “Don’t feel too bad I was wet anyway,” she said calming down.

“I’d still like to make your day a little less crappy.” He handed Holland an extra helmet and insisted she get on his bike, normally she would have said no and kept on going about her day. But the day was fated to be different. The minute she clung to him as they sped through time square, she felt an immediate calm and a large amount of trust to the stranger. He would give her everything and then take it away.

 

Holland could handle any obstacle that came her way, she stared at Brea a defensive tone rising in her voice, “Why are we talking about me all of a sudden? I’ve been dealing with everything the best way I can.”

“I know that.”

Holland didn’t understand her sister’s obsession with her mind and emotions. True she hadn’t been her usual self lately, but grief was new to her. She over thought every phrase and every smile. If I smile too big they’ll say I’m faking, If I don’t smile at all they’ll think I’m depressed. She didn’t know what to do, who to be, she knew she couldn’t be the original
Holland. She’d been destroyed by the world and her own ignorance toward it.

She remembered how composed she had been in preparation for the funeral. No one had seen her cry, not even her husband Rick. She ordered white asiatic lilies for the ceremony because they represented humility. The funeral had been held in the same church that her baby boy had been baptized in. Rick had been by her side quietly attending to her needs, though she never needed him. She wanted him more than anything else. In New York he was all she had left, she’d wanted to tell him that much but the idea always brought more tears to her eyes and she couldn’t cry in front of him. She couldn’t be seen like that, it wasn’t the image she wanted to share with anyone. She thought she was protecting Rick by hiding in the bathroom with her tears, but it had pushed him away…shoved him away.

In the night Rick would hold her hand while she slept. She would hear his apologies in her dreams. In those dreams was the image of life. It was better in the world her mind had created. There, everything was perfect, every piece had a place…nothing was missing.

 

“Are you okay?” her sister asked, “Hey,” she said, “Where did you go, Holls?” Brea asked, her fingers snapping in front of Holland eyes.

Holland shrugged off the question, “I’m here, and I’m fine.”

Brea’s demeanor was relaxed as she shrugged her round shoulders, “You keep telling me your fine. I just don’t believe that.”

“What can I do to convince you? Should we go jog, Brea?”

“You’re not even trying, ever since you came here all you’ve done is sit here and think. You say you come to me because you can talk to me and tell me things you can’t even tell your husband. We’ll you’re here, and all you tell me is that you’re fine.”

“Because it’s true.”

“It’s true that it’s easier for you to lie to yourself.”

Holland wouldn’t call her self-awareness lying. She’d done so in the hopes of not burdening anyone with her grief. Keeping silent was worse? What was she to do, she just wanted to be safe. The idea that she was lying to herself angered her, what was she lying about? What did the world want from her after it had taken so much? She was still alive and despite countless considerations to the contrary, she’d remained that way. Was it wrong for her to soak in pity after all she had lost? She had to wonder about that. How could trying to protect everyone else from the pain she was feeling be bad? There’s no wrong way to grieve and if there was then those not suffering have no right to say anything. The pain she felt was something only a few people knew.

 

Brea exhaled roughly, “If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the one who says she’s fine, is generally the one who needs help.”

“I honestly, don’t know what you expect me to say,” Holland told her sister.

“Tell me how you’re feeling?”

“I’m miserable, is that what you want to hear? I’m miserable, and every time I wake up I have to remind myself that only moments ago I was dreaming. I was dreaming about the past and that my past looks nothing like my present.”

In her dreams she held her sons hand as they crossed street. She bought his favorite ice cream from the grocers and they drove back to their home listening to the Mama Mia soundtrack. The song “I have A Dream” from the soundtrack was the lullaby she often sang to put him to sleep on his restless nights. She made dinner in those dreams for three. Rick whipped up a quick dessert and kissed her temple to congratulate themselves on another successful meal. They watched a movie after dinner, her baby boy incredibly fond of the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit suggested it each night, though he was easily swayed to other family movies. Together Holland and Rick put their son to bed. Rick carried him to his lighting McQueen bedroom and Holland tucked him into his red go-cart bed. They watched his tummy rise and fall for a good two minutes before leaving. Once the night was over it was immediately morning for Holland. Her dreams allowed her the days she was robbed, but she knew one day she would no longer be able to dream.

 

Holland opened her bottle of wine and chugged it immediately. She felt like a teenager, unable to express all of the complex emotions and events occurring in her life. How were you supposed to talk about death?

“Holland-

“We’re not talking about Donny!” Holland’s voice echoed through the quiet house and her tears pounded on the linoleum of the island, her face had turned scarlet red. Donny.

Brea whispered, “I know, I’m sorry.” She nodded, for once she wasn’t sure if she should say something or just listen. Taking Holland’s hand she squeezed it.

Holland remembered the days when Brea’s house was the summer house. She remembered running to Brea from the family Prius and her sister capturing her in her arms, wrapping her up in the protection and support big sisters often soaked in. Kevin was right behind his wife, coated in bronzer because for some reason he felt he didn’t look dark enough to say he lived in North Miami. Kevin would stretch out his hand and Holland would extend hers as they greeted one another through their secret hand shake. Rick was behind her carrying Donny, Donny who had round innocent brown eyes like his mother, and pale blonde hair like his father. Aunt Brea poked his round “teddy bear” belly and tickled him while he fidgeted in his father’s arms.

Often, after dinner Donny would chase Hudson around the house squealing whenever he was close to catching the young dog’s tail, and Holland would watch. Fascinated by her son’s fascination with Hudson. She saw that Donny stared at all things in innocence, and she loved how unharmed he was by life. He still saw the world as magic and beauty, and because he saw it, Holland felt that she could too. Donny was her innocence, her heart.

“I’m not ready, Brea.”

Brea nodded, “Okay.”

“Not yet, my dreams aren’t dead even though my son is.”

Everything was different, and all the possibilities were gone.

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The complexities of Munro’s short story “Differently” are brilliant. Their is a perfect example of character development presented in this tale. Munro tells the story in Georgia’s point of view, but readers are given equal opportunity to see and understand the major and minor characters. We’re given different time spans, and different social classes to add to the different people presented. Relating all of this to the title we see that while all these people could be seen differently, they all boil down to being exactly the same.

In the end of the short story Georgia even remarks to the word as a joke.

“Differently,” says Georgia. She puts foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is too lame that she can offer it only as a joke.

I’d say the joke is that with age and maturity and the scars of life people survive through the idea to change. The idea is a strong one. It’s the  desire to lead  life with a bit more wisdom, but the reality is that we can’t change the formatting and framing of our minds. We can barely behave differently and hardly see that way as well.  The younger Georgia often had moments of accidental clarity reflecting on the complications that surrounded life.

Alice Munro is able to display perfectly flawed characters that seem to still be in a coming of age phase of their lives, proving the journey doesn’t end with age.

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Arrhythmia, revised

When I hear the word love, I remember that summer, mid-June, the week leading up to my thirteenth birthday. The vibrancy was dialed up just shy of too much, a rich and luxuriant sun and so much green, until all I could do was lie under the pecan tree in the yard and close my eyes and feel the heat and color baking into my skin. It was a touch I felt I’d take with me for months to come.

Under the pecan tree, I was far enough from my house that I couldn’t hear any yelling or the Billy Joel CDs my mother played in the kitchen when she was upset. There was just the brown thrashers singing, the distant hum of the neighbor’s lawn mower, and the subtle rustles of insects through the grass. I liked to imagine I could hear the creek, too, but I knew it was too far from the house for that.

If I concentrated just right, I could feel my heartbeat in my chest, the ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, pause, DUM, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, pause that had kept me from doing sports or P.E. or even kicking around a soccer ball with the Nair kids who lived across the street. I had once read somewhere that if you crouch on your heels, you can feel your body rocking back and forth with the force of your heartbeat, back and forth. I read that you can’t keep yourself still, not quite, the heart muscle is so powerful. I wondered if this was true.

I told myself that this was not the season for falling out of love. I reminded myself that just last week, my father had kissed my mother on the cheek at the end of dinner and told her she should’ve been a chef, the split pea soup was so good. She’d smiled at him like everything between them had healed.

I thought, too, about my birthday party this Saturday. It was the one day of the year I was allowed to eat chocolate or sugar, aside from the little samples my father slipped me sometimes, and I couldn’t decide which flavor cake to ask my mother to make, caramel pecan or walnut fudge. I lay under the pecan tree, my mind metronoming back and forth, back and forth, until the shrill squeal of the screen door cut across the yard and I scrambled up, knowing my mother was already gathering her breath to call my name. Continue Reading »

Again, Strout makes very good use of sensory detail by including the appearance of Henry and Olive the time they were held hostage at the hospital. Olive was dressed in a papery robe with her big thighs and large stomach exposed after the tie had loosened. Henry was slouched against the bathroom wall with one pant leg up to his knee revealing his liver spots.

I really enjoyed how Strout used sensory language to signify the progression of the season changes rather than directly telling the reader what season it was.

“The leaves were half-gone now. The Norway maples still hung on to their yellow, but most of the orangey-red of the sugar maples had found their way to the ground, leaving behind the stark branches that seemed to hang like stuck-out arms and tiny fingers, skeletal and bleak.” (89)

Getting to Know Grace

In the chapter “Grace,” Okparanta uses perspective and dialogue to further express the depth of the narrator and Grace’s relationship. In the beginning of the chapter, the reader is wholly focused in the narrator’s head—her every day complaints, her initial confusion and curiosity about this girl with a “startling combination of youth and old age” (Okparanta 126). Their first conversations are the narrator simply recounting what Grace tells her and the reactions or memories that these encounters stir.

“She says, ‘It’s hard to know right from wrong, especially when some things feel right, and yet there are so many people telling you how wrong they are.’

I nod. Usually I’m listening to questions that don’t have to do with anything personal. Just demonstrations of intellect and scholarship. I want to hug her and tell her that one day she’ll figure it out for herself. But I’m not so sure of that, and so I don’t move” (Okparanta 129).

The first person narrative of this story automatically cues the reader in that the (unnamed) narrator is whom the story is about, and so the relevance of Grace and delving deeper into her emotional situation is not necessarily expected to be important to the story. Similarly, it would not be the most graceful read if the majority of this short story was the narrator saying, “She says… she continues…” etc. But as Grace opens up more to the narrator and as the narrator comes to admit to herself that she cares more than usual about Grace, the way their conversations are written about changes. Okparanta eases the reader into these changes slowly, first mentioning the vividness of Grace’s stories.

“And she tells me everything in so much detail that I can see their kitchen in my head and I can see her mama sitting on the short stool, her legs wrapped around the circumference of the mortar, pounding the yam with the pestle” (Okparanta 134).

At this point, the narrator (“I”) is still in the immediate story, but Grace’s speech is becoming more elaborate and the narrator is beginning to feel a greater connection to the story and Grace herself. Larger and larger chunks of dialogue are being told by Grace until she confronts her mother about marrying Nwafor. For almost an entire two pages (from the middle of 136, 137, and the middle of 138), the narrator completely leaves the story, transforming this section into a third person narrative about Grace. It is after this point that the narrator becomes fully caught up in her feelings for Grace, and with this snip-it of third person narrative, it is like the reader is getting a bit of each side of the story—the anguish and the pain on both sides.

Displaced

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Hidden Valley was a town barricaded by the massive crowns of the Appalachians. They loomed over wide expanses of rocky, cow-covered hills and dense, hardwood forests; tangled webs of red dirt roads that had all but washed away after years of flooding; and decrepit plantation houses eclipsed by nephilim box hedges. Under their shadow, generation after generation of coal miners, school teachers, farmers, and nurses had lived and worked, rarely diverting from the familiar or the safe. To Kele, who had resided in five states and two countries during her seventeen years, everything about the town felt like stepping back in time. Back to a place where old men sat shirtless on their porch swings in the summer, staring blankly at the heat waves rising up off the crumbling asphalt; where football was the only important sport and a cold creek water baptism was a poor girl’s cotillion; where kids ran barefoot and caught blood-red crayfish in the muddy bed of the Rappahannock. And it was where Kele had spent every summer with her grandmother Adahy before her parents’ divorce five years ago.

       Hidden Valley was the first and only place she’d ever really associated with the word home, though she’d lived in Columbia for most of her life. Now that she had been kicked out of Hammond–the stuffy private high school her mother had forced her into after a knife fight had broken out between two seventh grade girls on her public school bus–she had decided to dip her toes in small town life once again. In truth, the decision to return to Hidden Valley had not been one she’d made willingly. Her mother had finally given her an ultimatum last week: “straighten up and fly right” or go to bootcamp. Kele remembered how much her father had loathed the military, and she wasn’t particularly fond of people yelling in her face, so like most teenagers, she chose what she thought would be the path of least resistance. She decided she wanted a fresh start away from both her parents, so she called her grandmother up and asked to come stay with her for the rest of high school. It was rash, but it felt right. She’d been failing all her classes at Hammond, except for English, and she’d like to say it wasn’t for lack of trying, but then she’d be lying. Literature afforded her the opportunity to get out of her own head; to try on someone else’s personality, to become someone she could be proud of, someone interesting and kind and intelligent and beautiful. And she liked knowing that some people’s lives (however fictional) were as complicated, if not more, than her own. Continue Reading »

Her biggest mistake is what’s going to save her life.
Her biggest mistake is what’s going to save her life.
Her biggest mistake is what’s going to save her life.

I keep telling myself this over and over again, as if it’s going to comfort me. Deep down I always knew that something like this was going to happen to her. Ashton has always been my problem child; from the phone calls from her high school head master, the missing vodka bottles from the liquor cabinet, to the day she came home with red eyes and a itchy red spotted rash. She is constantly trying to push the boundaries of life without any concern over the consequences in her decisions. Any time I hear the house phone scream out with its skin stinging ring past six pm, I feel this incomprehensible feeling that floods my insides. It’s a heart-jolting alert, with mystery behind its every plea for me to acknowledge it’s unearthing presence. I ignore it at first. I let it whine for attention, but in the end I always pick up that plastic transmitter of disappointing news. From the time that I pick up that phone to the point where I hang up, I always leave the phone call wishing that I could know a little bit less. The end of the calls were always the trigger of my own self-reassessment. I wander aimlessly looking for something that can give me guidance, reassurance, anything that can make me understand why she acts out. I go to the dusty hardback copies of my old law books that nest on the shelves in the living room; I gaze out of the breakfast room’s large square glass window that over looks Laker Erie. I no longer hear the clanking and clashing of the china plates being put in the dishwasher, or the howls and wrestles of my two springer spaniels as I feel the slight tap of their florescent green ball being pushed against my toes. I take shelter in my impenetrable daydream, watching the boats sail by the coast in the gusty bright afternoons. I watch and I brainstorm. How am I going to get her to understand? Who do I know that still works in the courthouse? The Betty Ford Center has always found success.

As my first born, I will always look at Ashton as giving me my sole purpose of existence. She was born on a bitterly cold afternoon in late February. House lawns were completely veiled with thick frozen mounds of snow. The roads were covered with black ice that would play with your cars, like out of control hot wheels toys. The temperature outside was in the negatives, so cold that I can remember being able to reach out and grasp my breaths. I didn’t care about the numbness I was feeling in my toes or the deep icy feeling that spread throughout my bones, all I wanted to do was meet my baby girl. After six hours of my wife, Carter’s hard work, Ashton was born. I remember the way the nurse was dictating and re-adjusting me as she carefully placed her into my arms, as if she was reluctant of my new fathering abilities. The nurse may have had her reservations about my ability to keep my baby safe, but I wasn’t. The first time I looked into Ashton’s big blue oval eyes, I felt a feeling I had never felt before. I was connected to her, the way I have never felt connected to any other human being. When she looked at me, and grasped her little tiny fingers around my pointer finger, that was it. From that point, she has always had a unidentifiable power over me. It didn’t matter how far she would push me, I never began loving her any less. No matter how much it tore my heart out when she shared all of her terrible and irrational perceptions of me. Or her soul tearing screams of her temper tantrums, even the time she told me that she “hates me”, or when she cried out, “I wished that the cancer had just killed you!” The things that she would do or say didn’t matter because I loved her. Continue Reading »

“Let it Be”

My mom was a smoker. I think of her and I smell smoke. She would attempt to cover the smell with a spritz of some Walmart brand strong floral scent, but it’d just mix with the smoke and be worse than before. When I was younger I was embarrassed of her smoking because the other boys at school were able to smell the odor of cigarettes deep inside my clothes. The smell never bothered Dad much; he was in love with her so it was different for him. In high school, before I could drive on my own, I would grab my freshly cleaned shirt out of the dryer and run with it through the smoke-filled house and outside. There were times when I even went shirtless and dangled my button-down out of the window so that it wouldn’t be inside the car, hot boxing with me and my mom. I was subtle about it and knew that if I ever tried to tell her that it embarrassed me, she would get stressed and smoke more. I got the guts to finally say something, kind of. For one of her birthdays I bought her a pack of quitting patches. I saw them the other weekend when I was home from college to visit; they were collecting dust in the corner of her bookshelf beside two bowls of guitar picks.

Throughout high school I never invited any of my friends over to hang out, like many of them had for me. My parents sent me to the oldest private school in Savannah, Georgia, so all of my friend’s moms dressed like they had money. I was able to stay at the school because of Dad’s two jobs and a whole lot of financial aid, but to me, she could have bought a decent sweater from a thrift store and invested in something that didn’t make the boys and girls at my school stare when she picked me up. I just didn’t want my friends to see Momma in the living room, going through cigarettes like they were PEZ candies as she sat in her nightgown watching reruns of Roseanne. Though, I knew it truly wouldn’t matter whether or not she wore nice clothes like the other moms, she would still be caked in a layer of smelly smoke. The same smell that made the girls nauseous if I tried to impress them at the 8th grade dance. Luckily I learned my tricks of holding my shirt out of her car window and using Lysol right after she took my pants out of the dryer, just in case some smoke latched on quickly. Now I hate the smell of aerosol air fresheners. Continue Reading »

It was being a watcher that did it. A watcher, not a keeper. (378)

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In Alice Munro’s short story “Miles City, Montana,” she assembles her story through a set of memory based narratives. The action of the story takes place over the course of time, moving back and forth between the memory of a boy’s death in her childhood, and the memory of a frightening experience as a mother, some twenty years later. The story develops the themes of parenthood and the relationship of trust and forgiveness between a parent and a child. The story develops these themes through the two memories set in different stages of the narrators lives.

The story begins  with with a story from her childhood, where a little boy had drown. In her recollection, the narrator proclaims that “I don’t think I really saw all of this–I must have heard someone talking about that and imagined what I saw.” (374) This statement is a clear signifier to the latter events in the story. She admits that she imagined what she saw, which addresses the idea that memory recollection is not completely factual. Stories based on memories are often altered by the way in which the person believes they saw something because of how they emotionally experienced it. This concept plays a big role in the development of the narrators shifting viewpoints throughout the story.

Another important theme that is also established in the story is the difference between a child’s intuitive perception of adult responsibility (parenting) and the guilt of the adult, through their involvement and choices. This theme is developed in the latter half of the story.

The narrator states that she is a “watcher.” This role she assigns herself is the narrators most important establishment of her character. The concept of watching is her way of trying to understand the nature of everything around her. She recalls in her story as a child that she “stood removed from them (her parents), in a row of children, watching. I felt furious and sickening disgust.” (376) In her younger age she could not understand why she exactly had a feeling of disgust towards her parents. However, she comes to explain later , that when she became a parent she finally understood why she was. She developed this understanding because she now understood what it is like to be on the other side of the child-parent spectrum. The second story is based on a traumatizing experience as a parent. She reveals how she was reintroduced to these unsettling feelings that she had, when she was at that little boys funeral when she was little. When her youngest daughter comes close to drowning while she was eating her lunch, she came to understand the worst fears of being a parent. The thought of loosing her child because she stopped watching her for only a moment, brings her to the understanding of why she was so disgusted by her parents. She watched them at the funeral, that feeling of disgust was her naive childish instinct of putting the blame on adults, because they were responsible for bringing children into existence and for watching them.

After experiencing her own child’s near death experience, she came to a new understanding from actually being a parent. The narrator has grabbled with the fact that a parents responsibility is to ensure the well being of their child. A parent, although they may try, cannot always be in full attention of  their child, which can sometimes lead to accidents that they cannot control. Through the narrators own daughter almost drowning within that short moment where she stopped being a “watcher,” her daughter almost died. This new understanding of the narrators changed perspective wraps the story all together. In the moment where the narrator makes a natural mistake and her daughter almost dies, that is where Munro subtly slips in the themes of guilt, forgiveness and trust. The narrator feels guilty for not being there to protect her daughter and she feels guilty for letting her daughter have such a scary experience in her life. The narrator’s final remarks are stating that “we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that has first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous, all our natural, and particular mistakes.” (394) The narrator wraps up all of the underlying themes of the story, and touches on the fact that adults make mistakes, and with time and aging, the children will come to understand these mistakes, and forgive them.

“The Oceanographer”

I love the beach.  I love the smell of ozone and minerals filling my nostrils. I love the aroma of the sun-steamed water that wafts to shore by tropical jet streams; these streams that have the power to take a calm rippling wave and turn it into a tsunami. It is the tsunamis I am after. As a child, some sixty odd years ago, my parents took me to a beach that we barely escaped from. My parents took me to the beach because they couldn’t afford much else, but that didn’t matter to me. The ocean was a second home; it cleared my mind, and allowed me to be free, and to think.

Today I am watching the people of San Pedro Beach Reserve. To these people I am nothing more than another tourist enjoying the hot sand climbing between my toes, feeding seagulls as they demand their tolls of bread for being on their land, and digging into the liquid sand to watch the crabs dance sideways towards the sea.

What the people don’t know is I am an oceanographer, and I am here on this lovely white sanded beach filled with sand castles, pretend mermaids or sea monsters, laughter and smiles to warn these people of something terrible. It is my duty and prerogative to either allow these people to remain on this beach to enjoy the rays of sun and sand or to alert them to the possibility of an approaching tsunami. Continue Reading »

“Emma finally went into labor?”

A smile broke out across my face at my boyfriend James’ absentminded question as he flipped through the TV channels. For a person who tried his best to minimize contact with my family (swearing that they were a bunch of snobs), he sure inquired after their wellbeing a lot.

“No, not that I know of,” I replied, putting down the Montgomery Advertiser that I had been flipping through. “I just got home from the cleaners. You are the one that has been home all day. You should be the one giving me updates, silly.”

He answered me by rolling his eyes.

The last time I had seen my sister, she had thrown me for a complete loop when she dropped the bomb that she was going to name her long-awaited daughter after me, her absolutely polar opposite sister. I’m sure my both of my parents, whom I know were absolutely tired of the way we were constantly at the other’s throat, would have been happy at the thought.

Leaving James to the lure of the TV, I got up and walked into the epic disaster that we called a bedroom, my heart heavy at thinking about them. It had not even been more than a month since we had lost Momma; more than a month since me and my sister had parted ways in our home in Chicago.  When I think of Daddy, she surely comes to mind.

Questions that never held a definite answer for me kept crossing my mind as I picked up the last picture I had of them together. Do I still feel guilty for striking out on my own?

I knew to this day, that I never meant for any of my family to think that I was ashamed of where I had come from. I just wanted the chance to be myself, without being crushed under what was expected of me. I could remember just clear as the beautiful sunny day when we buried Daddy when I left home for good. He had almost scared me for a while there. I had thought that he didn’t understand where I was coming from, which was odd. We had always been like one mind. But, of course, he came through for me at the end. Continue Reading »

“Lucky”

This year Clarity decided to decorate her dorm room for each occasion in every month. In November she made a cornucopia and hand turkeys out of construction paper. For December she could not buy a Christmas tree, so she used construction paper to cut out a tree large enough to put on the wall and “decorated” it with lavish ornaments and garland. January was full of snowmen and snowflakes. Last month, in February, hearts with love and friendship quotes accented the walls. Now, after a trip to the dollar store, Clarity had enough St. Patrick’s Day themed garlands to wrap around her room twice. As she prepared to fill the room with a deep green sea of clovers, she noticed words imprinted on the small shimmery clover leaves, “lucky.”

She thought back to the previous year when she was spending spring break with her friend, Valerie, who lived only two hours away in a town near Richmond, VA. Clarity’s home was six states away, and she could not afford to make the trip. Clarity was excited to be staying with Valerie. She knew Valerie would be waitressing a couple days out of the week, but figured they could spend time together when her shift was done. Valerie, however, was making other plans.

Valerie was excited to meet this guy whom she’d met a year prior, but never actually took the time to talk to him. A subtle Facebook message from him complimenting her beauty was what got the conversation going. He was an acquaintance of her ex-boyfriend, Dick, who she found out was cheating on her. She decided to end the two year relationship, but still kept herself in the know on his Facebook page. This new guy, Dylan, was a nice distraction for her, as she liked to phrase it. Dylan was a Marine stationed in Maryland, who made the trip out to Richmond to see Valerie. This flattered Valerie very much because any guy willing to drive three hours to see someone must have been worth the time to talk to. Continue Reading »

Differently – Maya

“Maya was a surprise. She opened the door herself, barefoot, wearing a long shapeless robe of coarse brown cloth that looked like burlap. Her hair was long and straight, part high at one temple. It was almost the same dull-brown color as the robe. She did not wear lipstick, and her skin was rough and pale, with marks like faint bird tracks in the hollows of her cheeks. This lack of color, this roughness of texture about her seemed a splendid assertion of quality. How indifferent she looked, how arrogant and indifferent, with her bare feet, her unpainted toenails, her queer robe. The only thing that she had done to her face was to paint her eyebrows blue — to pluck out all the hairs of her eyebrows, in fact, and paint the skin blue. Not an arched line — just a little daub of blue over each eye, like a swollen vein” (505).

Maya is a critical character in this story, both in present day reflection of her and in the past when Georgia was with Miles. Maya was first introduced to Georgia in the passage above, though the plot of the story begins well after that point — after Georgia got to know her, became best friends with her, had a falling out with her, and found out about her death. The point in the relationship with Maya at which the section of the story takes places lets the reader know where we are in time. The fluidity of time and location is cemented through the use of the relationship between the two friends.

The reason I highlighted the passage above was because it so clearly and vividly captured the essence of Maya’s eccentric character. This description develops Maya’s character quite thoroughly through the use of imagery, a comparison between what is considered normal and how Maya behaves, and also her indifference. This passage tells us that Maya behaves strangely, knows that she is behaving strangely, and does so intentionally. This passage makes her burlap colored hair, uncomfortable sounding bathrobe, and outlandishly colored eyebrows seem entirely believable. My favorite line her is about “How indifferent she looked, how arrogant and indifferent” because it defines her character’s personality which later rears it’s ugly head during the double affair.

The Albanian Virgin

In reading “The Albanian Virgin” I started thinking to myself, “is this story about Lottar or Claire (whose name we don’t find out until we’re 25 pages into the story, interestingly enough — more on that later) or is this story about both of them?”

This follows a format similar to the Okparanta story in that our narrator is telling the story of another person, in a sense creating a third person narration from a first person perspective. Though a first person story must be about the narrator, this story is almost entirely Lottar’s. Page after page is filled with the story of the woman who becomes a virgin and gives up her femininity. This story is about how the woman traveled and her relationship with the Franciscan. The narrator seems to be simply retelling the story with very little interpretation or emotional inflection on the circumstances. This is at first presented to us as a movie idea, though we come to believe it is instead the female-patron-of-Claire’s-bookshop’s story. The question is still there for me. I don’t see this story as two different points of view, but rather Claire retelling the story of Lottar (Charlotte). With so little influence from Claire, does this story then become about Lottar, or does the reader have to look harder at what Claire does mention in order to understand what the importance of this story is to her?

In reading this, I also noticed that the reader had gone an awfully long way without having been informed of the narrator’s gender or name. If I was to read this critically, I’d tell you this probably has something to do with the virgin status and lack of gender that Lottar experiences. I’d explain that this is perhaps a feminist story about how losing ones femininity is better than being forced into sexual slavery or into a marriage that you weren’t interested in. It could perhaps be interpreted as a story about the terrible circumstances for woman in Albania. Instead, I’ll tell you that if any of this was the intention of Munro, holding off on gender and not giving us the narrator’s name is wonderful example of craft in this story. A detail like that creates this much of an understanding. That’s interesting, incredible, and used very, very effectively.

Probably the most noticeable aspect of “Meneseteung” is the way Munro weaves together the story’s point of view and structure. The tight structure, clearly delineated by numbering and introductory snippets from Almeda’s poems, allows Munro to make point-of-view shifts without reader confusion–aside from the confusion she intentionally invokes, which I would call a good kind of confusion, curiosity.

At the beginning, the narration is almost strictly essayistic. Aside from the comment, “. . . a soft beret, that makes me see artistic intentions . . .” (p. 477), the narrator holds himself (herself? I’ll assume it’s a “he”) back from the story. The analysis of rhyme scheme (p. 478-9) feels like something for a school essay, but comments like “Not a pretty girl” (p. 476) and colorful wording like “comically intentioned doggerel” (p. 478) seem more informal and personal, like someone’s musings to themselves or something he might write in a letter to a friend. Thus, even without having the narrator say anything about himself, Munro slowly builds his character through these instances of narrative voice.

It soon becomes clear that each section delves deeper into Almeda’s life. At first, the narration is distanced by time and place. The reader sees Almeda through her book alone. Then, the narrator steps out from the page enough to walk through Almeda’s town and observe her house, her street, and her neighborhood. The perspective remains distanced, however. Most of the description centers around the feel of the town as a whole. The closest the narrator comes to Almeda is the view of her house from the street and a few “facts” that the narrator should not know, such as that “Almeda Roth has never walked past the row housing” (p. 481). Even here, though, the present tense (“The population is younger than it is now . . .”, p. 480) pulls the reader deeper into the scene. In the next section, the narrative inches even closer. Almeda steps out of her house, a living character instead of a historical figure, and proceeds to have a conversation with Jarvis. The reader can hear the exact words she speaks to him, which is bewildering when one remembers that the narrator wasn’t witness to the conversation. Continue Reading »

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“Consolance”

English Exercise 4.1

The keen, cold wind cuts my face as it blows past me from multiple directions. Today is the coldest day of the year, so cold that my gloves fail to insulate my hands from the biting temperature. I reluctantly slide up my coat sleeve, exposing as little skin as possible to the air, to check my watch for the time. It is thirty minutes passed noon. Thirty minutes passed the time Carl and I agreed to meet here on these front steps, and thirty minutes too long, I have waited for him to arrive. Neither of us is allowed to enter the apartment without the accompaniment of a lawyer, too many disagreements on what belongs to whom and who cares to take the leftovers. Carl finally arrives with his lawyer, walking up the sidewalk from the corner of the street.

“What took you so long,” I questioned as I stood from the concrete steps, “You were supposed to be here nearly an hour ago.”

“Traffic,” Carl answered nonchalantly as he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and began lighting it. “Didn’t you see us walking from the end of the street? There was hardly any place to park.”

Annoyed, “Did you see me sitting here on these steps?! My ass is nearly frozen numb from waiting so damn long.”

Carl inhales his cigarette and aims the smoke away as he exhales, indifferent to my obvious frustration.

I exclaimed, “I have other shit to do today! Put that damn cigarette out and let’s get inside already.”

I turn and begin climbing the steps to the front door. Carl and his lawyer follow behind, leaving distance between them and me. Continue Reading »

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I like how Strout portrays Olive’s character in this chapter by showing her make actions out of spite such as, stealing Sue’s shoe and bra and marking up her sweater. I also feel it indirectly shows Olive’s insecurities while she overhears Sue talking about Christopher’s hard childhood. The many ways in which Olive excuses her actions are passive aggressive and only strengthen Olive’s beliefs about herself and people. For instance, Olive excuses Chris for never having too many friends because ” he is like her in that way, can’t stand the blah-blah-blah,” instead of understanding that Chris was just embarrassed of Olive. Which also explains why Chris would marry a woman he had just met six weeks ago.

I like how Strout effectively “shows” Angela’s state of being by stating, “The green numbers by the bank said minus three degrees, but she didn’t feel cold. Her mascara was frozen, though.” (58) Here we see that Angela doesn’t feel cold because she is numb from the alcohol. Another reason why she always has alcohol on her breath and refuses to take her twenty minute breaks is because she is always nervous to start playing the piano, so she doesn’t want to stop until her shift ends.

I also like Angela’s train of thought, and how she mentions Malcolm calling Walter “pathetic” and thinking to herself how people might see Malcolm’s and her affair pathetic.

I really liked the way Strout was able to convey a message without directly stating it. “The fact that their newly backed scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad…” (31) This lets the reader know that Patty has had two miscarriages in the past year without it being directly stated.

I also like the way Strout develops Olive’s character as she invites herself into Kevin’s car without even second guessing to ask if it was okay. And she also bluntly speaks about his business with his mother’s death, without considering his feelings.

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