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Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think. (p. 498)

I certainly understand where the instructor is coming from. Writing two characters well is hard enough, as I know from experience, and if you can’t write two, you probably shouldn’t try to juggle more than two. Munro, though, has mastered the art of juggling multiple characters. “Differently” is one of my favorite of Munro’s stories precisely because of this complexity. I’m simply in awe of the skillful way she develops so many characters and relationships and keeps them all relevant to each other and to the story as a whole.

How indifferent she looked, how arrogant and indifferent, with her bare feet, her unpainted toenails, her queer robe. . . . Georgia, whose dark hair was teased, whose eyes were painted in the style of the time, whose breasts were stylishly proffered, found all this disconcerting, and wonderful. (p. 505)

I love that when Munro provides a physical description, it has a function in the story other than just helping the reader to visualize the character. In this case, the descriptions add characterization through contrast. Georgia’s character emerges more clearly when placed next to someone so different, and the same can be said for Maya. The description also adds to the sense of setting. Munro doesn’t want the reader to see her character as physically beautiful so much as she wants to establish Georgia as a product of her time. Continue Reading »

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Vandals – 5/6 Blog

In Alice Munro’s Vandals, women needing to hold on to the men emotionally seem to be a huge aspect of this story.

Bea creeped me out with her honesty, as well as her willful denial of what was going on. “...what she did think that some women, women like herself, might always be on the lookout for an insanity that can contain them. For what was living with a man if it wasn’t living inside his insanity? But that might not be enough, not big enough — and a insanity that was not big enough simply made a woman mean and discontented.” (pg.640)

“She had forgiven Ladner, after all, or made a bargain not to remember.” (pg.660)

While I can grudgingly get behind the ‘woman loves a bad boy/ has to tame him’ scenario, this seems to take it to a whole new extreme. Ladner, Bea’s now dead husband, had a mean streak within him; even though Bea herself admitted that she could be the vain type, this “ He was imitating Bea. He was doing what she was doing but in a sillier, ugly way/ See how vain she is, said Launder’s angular prancing. See what a fake.” (pg.656) was just pure pettiness of the worst sort.

Once I read “He made a pretend grab at her, to get her between the legs. At the same time, he made a pious, shocked face as if the person in this head was having a fit at what his hand might do.” (pg. 657), I couldn’t help but slam the book down. In all of his insanity, Lauder was also a sexual predator.

I think that because of this aspect of her history, Liza was broken too. In her world with Laudner, “ … what was terrible was always funny, badness was mixed up with silliness, you always had to join in with dopey faces and voices and pretending that he was a cartoon monster” (pg. 658). She had to do what she must, to get by in the world; no wonder that she didn’t know what she wanted out of Bea – “her love was one of expectation, but she didn’t know what was it she expected.” (pg.656).

Liza had met her husband, Warren, ironically, at the Fellowship of the Savior Bible Chapel. Being that her childhood seemed to be a mess of sorts, I guess she looked at her husband as a measure of safety. Even while she was physically vandalizing up the house in a rage (Im assuming she was just getting the rage out about what had happened to her), he seemed to steadfastly stay by her side, even though he didn’t quite understand about the ‘whys’ of it – “ His whole body felt as if it was humming with the effort to be still and make this be over.” (pg.650) and “Warren didn’t like watching her.” (pg. 653).

Out of everything in the story, for reason, this line(s) kind of haunt me for a variety of reasons, “None of that. Not allowed. Be good. The woman who could rescue them – who could make them, keep them all good.”

What Beau had been sent to do, she doesn’t see. Only Liza sees.” (pg. 661).

And thats just the most depressing thought of them all.

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“Differently”

When I began “Differently” I wasn’t too engaged. I thought that it was going to be choppy and for nothing. I was wrong, but more on that in a moment. First, I would like to mention how much I enjoyed Munro’s well developed sense of place in this story. She does this well with the only two restaurants that Maya will eat at, which are dripping with unique details that grab you into their oddities, “The Moghul’s Court had curtains of moth-eaten pumpkin colored velvet, and desiccated ferns, and waiters who wore turbans” (508). And again with the hippie restaurant, “where you sat on dirty plush cushions tied to the tops of stumps and ate brown rice with slimy vegetables” (508). I love that. I enjoy how Munro uses these places to also show Maya’s character more fully as well with how Maya puts on a character for each of these restaurants and pretends to be someone she is not. I also really enjoyed the description of the book store, and street out front, that Georgia works in because it is full of amazing detail that makes me what to be in that exact bookstore.

It was a wide east-west street filled in the early evening with a faintly yellow light, a light reflected off pale stucco buildings that were not very high, plain storefronts, nearly empty sidewalks…Straight long rows of paperbacks. The store was a straight avenue of bounty, plausible promises (511).

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River

First, I tried to come up with some witty title for this post that somehow related to the content of this post, but in the end I decided that “River” was about as fitting as I could get.

Second, I want to call this a happily ever after story, and for two reasons. The first is done through Strout’s use of language when she uses and repeats phrases, for example, “He never mentioned Harvard” when earlier in the story Jack had been described as always talking about Harvard. The irony of getting to know someone and realizing they aren’t what you expected is portrayed in this story with that one line. After it’s established that Jack isn’t just a rich white Republican guy who doesn’t support his daughter, though he’s all of those things but rich, Olive seems to move away from being so selfish. Her character begins to shift and become more accepting. She doesn’t take responsibility for the lack of communication between her and her son, but she does acknowledge, finally, that she hasn’t been perfect. It’s like suddenly this old man who takes breaks when he walks changes Olive. Maybe it’s because he’s so radically different than her that he has the ability to show her that acceptance is possible.

So that’s why it’s a happily ever after. There’s this sort of muted detachment from Christopher where Olive doesn’t seem as bothered by he’s lack of contact with her. She even, in the end, owns up to mistreated him. Perhaps agreeing with Christopher telling her that it takes two. She takes breaks on her walks with Jack, because she enjoys his company. She wants to live. It seems as if Olive is finally okay with the world.

And what a way to end a book, because that’s what I think this is, that has dealt with so many other troubling issues. Finally Olive can have her peace and live out her days in a very simple, content way.

River

imagesYou know when you read something and you say to yourself, “Hey, that’s really good. How come I’ve never noticed that before?”  That is how I feel about Strout’s writing. I noticed when Strout writes from Olive’s perspective the voice is harsh and to the point. Strout is writing Olive’s character from a third person perspective, and you cannot even tell because of the language she uses to create Olive’s voice. A great example of this comes from page: 269, when Strout writes, “She stepped into the room, put her handbag on the floor. He didn’t sit up, just stayed there, lying on the bed, an old man, his stomach bulging like a sack of sunflower seeds.” This line is so amazing, it conveys both Olive’s point of view, it describes the scene, it has harshness to the tone and voice, and it sums up Olive to a tee.  Strout is so creative in her word choices, the lines she uses are always unique, descriptive, and she uses certain tones that change from character to character. Another great example of this is from Henry’s point of view in the story “Pharmacy” when Strout writes, “Standing in the back, with the drawers and rows of pills, Henry was cheerful when the phone began to ring, cheerful when Mrs. Merriman came for her blood pressure medicine, or old Cliff Mott arrived for his digitalis, cheerful when he prepared the Valium for Rachel Jones, whose husband ran off the night their baby was born. It was Henry’s nature to listen.” The lines engulf the character that makes up Henry, he is cheerful, a good listener, and he was always willing to help. Strout does something else in her stories; she gives us two sides to each character every time. In the story “River” we are witness to Olive coming to terms with living and dating again, she still has the character of someone who is judgmental and pushy, yet Strout gives us relatable details of Olive having desires for companiship and overcoming loneliness, in a story like this it is the talented writers that are able to make an unlikeable character lovable.

Alice Munro uses characterization in a very unique way with this story. The point of view is first person and the reader sees the narrator tell a story about her now deceased mother and her time she spent as a teacher. The narrator spirals into a story about Flora Grieves, a girl that her mother met while at the Grieves school. The reader learns a lot about the mother from the way that the narrator is telling the story because she ends it in a way to sum up what her mother would have said about Flora versus what the narrator holds to be valuable, “I could see what she would do with Flora, what she had already done. She would make her into a noble figure…I had my own ideas about Flora’s story. My Flora would be as black as hers white” (470). Munro’s unique ideas about how to characterize the mother and narrator through this third person, Flora and all of her downfalls and turns in life. I find it interesting that the narrator tells her mother’s thoughts on Flora from the beginning, so the reader feels sympathy for her and what she has had to go through, and only then flipping it to making us see the reverse of Flora. Perhaps the narrator is doing this as a way to remember her mother, and in the end she drifts back to her mother right before she died.

While the flipping back to hypothetical dream-like words and reflective telling could be seen as a bit confusing, I think it aided in informing the readers about the characters. Throughout all of the Munro stories, she tends to shift back and forth through time, so this isn’t new. The narrator is trying to make sense of the complexities of her life and the differences between her and her mother; Munro does a great job of showing a reflection on the narrator’s life through the story-telling aspect of something seemingly irrelevant, that is prevalent in some of her other stories as well.

 

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Alice Munro’s short story “The Progress of Love” is based around the themes of the  complicated relationships of family ties, the generational progress of love and grudges, and the nature of perspective. Munro depicts the importance of perception and memory in shaping individuals lives by using two writing techniques. The first technique is her choice to express the different themes by including a variety of different stories on the families dynamics through two generations. She does this by shifting the narrative from present to past, then back to present. The second technique that she used to emphasize the importance of perception is by the emphasis that there is never just one story. Many people see the same thing differently; this use of perception also plays into the idea of cultural changes in time. An example this is shown through the story about Marietta and Beryl’s mother’s suicide “attempt”. The story is first told through the eyes of Marietta, who is older than Beryl. She believes that her mother intentionally was trying to kill herself, where Beryl tells the story and writes it off as her mother trying to play a prank on their father. Age difference can play a very huge role in how something can be perceived.

Another example of the importance of perception in this story is the different views on how a woman should live her life. The narrator is divorced and is happy with her decision to change her life in a way that she wanted, whereas her mother comes from a time in which divorce was not an option and woman were expected to just swallow their feelings. This countering idea of traditional vs. modern lifestyles is what causes resentment that the narrator has towards her mother.

River

River is told through Olive’s eyes (third person, present, limited). The literal river where the lives of both characters lives intersect is important because it shows a signaling of the end of two separate lives and the beginning of another newly unified one. To me, Olive was being her typical self, with her denial about how she felt about Jack throughout the story. Jack, himself, even though the reader could still tell that even though he was a flawed individual (the emotional abuse of his daughter cause of her being gay), Strout still got showed that he accepted Olive and his feelings for her over a gradual period of time – “ Anyway, Olive, you can tell me anything, that you beat your son, black and blue, and I won’t hold it against you. I don’t think it will.” (pg. 268)

Even though it was pretty much obvious, I thought when Olive had said to Jack “ Then, you’re in hell. she said.” “Then, I’m in hell.” (pg. 255). I thought this was particularly honest because it was the honest truth to them. Olive felt as though she shouldn’t live much longer, with Henry dead and Christopher pretty much leaving her to her own devices, now that he was focused on his own new family. Jack was pretty much in the same boat, having recently lost his wife.

They did not know that lumpy, ages, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm, ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didnt choose it.” (pg. 270).

When looking at the beginning of the book in Pharmacy, especially from Henry’s POV and his emotional attachment to Denise, one got the impression that while Henry loved Olive dearly (to the point of separating from her felt as though it was like a sawing off a limb), there was almost a distance between them, whether it was because of her prior love affair with Jim O’Casey or something else. It was quite poetic to see that Olive in of her occasionally contrary, shrewish, ways realize that she had kind of taken advantage of Henry’s devotion to her and could have been a better wife to him. “It was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.” (pg. 270)

One perspective that we saw in River was the one of Bunny, Olive’s friend. As Olive herself thought, “Bunny didn’t want to be around Olive too much, as though Olive’s widowhood was like a contagious disease. She’d talk to Olive on the phone, though.” (pg.257). While I got the impression that sometimes Bunny was willing to ‘bring’ Olive down to earth sometimes just for the sake of being contrary, there were times that she was a perfectly reasonable friend “I think that you’re being a little hard on him, Olive.” (pg. 261), “I think if you enjoy his company, you should just let it go.” (pg. 266), even if Olive didn’t want to hear it. In the end, I think that all she wanted was for Olive to be happy.

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Friend of My Youth

When reading Munro’s “Friend of My Youth,” I often found myself forgetting that this was a story told in first person. The narrator begins with, “I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same. . . .” (455). Right away, then, Munro prepares the reader for a story about this narrator and her mother. She thus sets out to emphasize the parallel between that relationship and the complex story the mother tells about the Grieves family.

Nevertheless, I soon got swept up in the peculiarities of the Grieveses and forgot about the narrator and her mother, neither of whom had made much of an appearance at the beginning. For pages at a time, the “I” disappears. The narrative style during these portions is still quite distant, as the gaps in knowledge remind the reader every so often:

Ellie, the younger sister, was only about thirty, and Flora seven or eight years older. Robert Deal might be in between. (456)

My favorite aspect of this telling was the moments when the narrator’s mother interacted with the Grieves sisters.

My mother called her a whirling dervish.

“You’re a regular whirling dervish, Flora,” she said, and Flora halted. She wanted to know what was meant. My mother went ahead and explained . . . (458)

Without these moments, I doubt the tale of the Grieveses would have felt nearly so real. The presence of the mother, however, grounds their story in the reality established in the first sentence. It also allows the story of the Grieveses to feel like relevant information. The narrator is thinking about them again and again through the years, so they must be important; this is not only an entertaining story but also a meaningful one.

The story ends by coming full circle, returning to the mother and narrator. Here Munro makes the parallel most explicit:

She is not surprised that I am telling her this, but she is weary of it, of me and my idea of her, my information, my notion that I can know anything about her.

Of course it’s my mother I’m thinking of, my mother as she was in those dreams, saying, It’s nothing, just this little tremor; saying with such astonishing lighthearted forgiveness, Oh, I knew you’d come someday. (474)

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Olive’s Mind

In “Security” Strout gives her readers, I feel, more insight into Olive emotionally. Up until this story we only receive glimpses of Olive’s humanity, empathy, and sensitivity. As with many women, Olive’s greatest emotional response occurs when it comes to her son Christopher.

Through Christopher’s explanation we are given even further insight into not only Christopher but Olive as well — insight into her as a parent and, as the end result of that, into her as an individual. As Christopher is a  generally a removed character, having this story definitely sheds light on things readers could only assume up until this point.

“Olive,” said Ann. “Please, please stay calm. No one called you any names. Chris was only trying to tell you that your moods change kind of fast sometimes , and it’s been hard. For him growing up, you know. Never knowing.”

Olive’s many mood changes and easy dislike of people are seen in “Pharmacy” and in “A Little Burst.” Naturally, this emotional volatility has had some effect on Christopher’s character and easily explains his silent demeanor in the earlier stories. Here the idea of security expresses the feeling of safety. Christopher expresses to Olive that he never feels safe with her, that he has never had the ability to voice his own thoughts and fears.

“You say you want to leave, then accuse me of throwing you out. In the past, it would have made me feel terrible, but I’m not going to feel terrible now. Because this is not my doing. You just don’t seem to notice that your actions bring reactions.”

Olive’s idea of safety stems from the physical aspect of not wanting to be touched, which could also be interpreted as a figurative expression of her not wanting to be understood emotionally while at the same time screaming inside that no one seems to understand the pain she is in. Olive’s stubborn mindset and “mood- swings” send her to unavoidable situations and unanticipated reactions to her actions.

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The Spreading Tumour

Throughout Okparanta’s story collection Happiness, Like Water, we are presented with a few reoccurring themes, one of which is the abusive father. “Tumours and Butterflies” shows readers  how the daughter has actually developed as a person after enduring childhood with a haunted father whose disruptive nature inevitably scarred his family.

The tumor is a karmic punishment. As the daughter says,

Somewhere in the middle of going to and from  the hospital, I find out that the thyroid gland is butterfly-shaped, that it has two lobes that look somewhat like butterfly wings. Butterflies should be soft and beautiful, but I imagine that perhaps this is the issue with Papa’s thyroid. Perhaps his thyroid has never been quite the way it should be. I imagine that removing it from his neck might result in  the change  that we’ve always wanted. (179)

At the end of the story we are introduced to this idea of emotional and mental abuse. The father’s disruptive nature has thus become like his tumor growing and spreading its wings, infecting the other members of the family.

But then I look at her again. And she looks more pitiful than she has ever looked all the times Papa hit her or screamed at her. More pitiful than she looked even with her black eyes in Boston. It occurs to me that I am the one making her feel this way. And I realize that it’s not at all something to smile about. (195)

This idea is believable because Okparanta takes time to accomplish character development and history. We are able to see how the daughter has grown both physically and mentally since these childhood incidents. Choosing in the end to leave shows how she has grown above them.

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A Generation of Women

Munro’s story “White Dump” is told in third-person omniscient point-of-view, and Munro cleverly creates transitions that transport the reader into three different characters’ minds. Each narrative is told with delicate care in that the events presented, or rather the main event, is told in different experiences holding in it complex character development.

There is also something to be said about all of the narratives being told by women of all different ages and generations. Their is no sympathy or understanding shared between these women when it comes to their feeling toward one another. Perhaps this is Munro’s point, in that these women are flawed, but their flaws don’t make them the same. At the same time their flaws create a pattern of anger and complexity that goes to each generation.The layering of each perspective was, admittedly, confusing to me until I reached the final perspective of Isabel. Her story holds the game-changing climax that readers are denied experiencing,  the main idea of the first two perspectives.

The reoccurring theme of of each narrative could be the overall idea of being discarded: Denise, in some sense, is discarded by her mother. Sophie is discarded by her family in general for eccentric behavior and habits, and then their is Isabel who essentially discards her marriage and is thus thrown away by her husband.

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Strout ~ Criminal

catysRebbeca is facing a problem that many people have when they have left or moved on from a confining or controlling relationship; she is trying new things to break away or free herself from the constraints she has experienced in her life. The tendency to ask questions such as Who am I? is very common.

In Rebecca’s world she is exploring stealing. Why does Strout explore this? I think she explores this because it sums up the meaning behind all her stories. The world Strout has created consists of good people making bad choices, or bad people who don’t know they are bad (Olive, for example) making bad choices.

In this case, Rebbeca is stealing from a magazine from a doctor’s office. This may not seem like a big deal, but to her it is. It is this moment that Strout uses to show us that the character has changed; she has made a choice that is forever going to change her. Rebecca goes home to burn the magazine pages, hiding from her “crime,” but what does this say about the character? I think it tells the reader that Strout wanted to show us the inner turmoil and conflict through the action of the burning of pages, even if Rebecca does not yet realize that she is in turmoil.

Rebecca is free for the first time and is seeking a thrill or a strong feeling to pour into a broken heart. Strout never has the character say outright that she is broken-hearted; what Strout does, though, is show us this through Rebecca’s relationship with her parents — the father she both loves and hates and the mother who is almost non-existent in her life. What is amazing is how Strout crafted such complex and complicated relationships.

I’ve officially come to the conclusion that Strout doesn’t have any likeable characters. Olive is obnoxious, blunt, and selfish. Henry, though by no choice of his own, abandons Olive. Christopher’s actions don’t make sense, and he doesn’t seem happy, and perhaps this is because the story is through Olive’s perspective and not his, but he also seems to have disowned his mother. (Olive: “All your life I have loved you.” Christopher: “Okay. Now I don’t have anything left to say.” [page 232]) The other characters who have made guest appearances — neighbors, nurses, Christopher’s wives — aren’t likeable either. They’ve got just as many terrible characteristics as Olive does.

So, why? Is it simply because every person has less than ideal qualities and characteristics? (I’d really like an answer to this question. I don’t know it, or at least, I don’t think I know it.) I’m human. You’re human. We are all human with imperfections. But there’s more to that. Characters who are perfect are boring. Characters who get along great with their kids and never get left by anyone are boring. Characters who don’t say the wrong thing sometimes are boring. People like that don’t exist, and characters like that shouldn’t. They’re flat, one dimensional, incomplete. Strout creates some characters who are full of quirks.

And as for liking them or not, I think that depends on the person. I think these characters are sort of like people. Sometimes there are people you can live with; sometimes there are characters you’d rather live without. For some people, Olive’s cranky self-centered attitude is enough to turn them off of her character, and for others it’s saddening because she only wants to be loved by the people she loves most dearly. Maybe it’s both at the same time for some people because Olive is so deeply complex and complicated.

As for the other more minor characters, someone has to instigate some drama. It might even help us like Olive more to have a shared hatred of another character.

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In Strout’s “Security” we see Olive in a new way than in the rest of the stories in the collection. While it has always been evident that Olive is not the nicest of people, we finally see her from the point of view of Christopher and we also discover why he has been so distant from her all of these years. Strout understood that this was an important short story to the collection and it is evident that she took the time to make it great.

To make this piece stand out and highlight its importance, Strout takes Olive away from the small town and into Christopher’s world. I think this is particularly important because we see the heightened anxiety she has from the beginning, “She had never, in her seventy-two years, set foot in the city” (200) and “A good time was not something Olive expected to have” (201). We know that there is tension, and taking Olive out of her comfort zone makes it easier for us to see Christopher’s understanding of his mother. This heightened level of anxiety from the very beginning is mixed with the tension of Olive’s inner thoughts critiquing Ann or Christopher’s parenting provides the reader with a trembling feeling throughout the entire story. Therefore, when Olive gets so paranoid (as Christopher calls her and is very accurate) and Christopher tells her off, the reader feels oddly satisfied because we finally get closure and insight about how Olive has been as a mother all of these years without the bias of her complaining. Strout excels at giving the reader this satisfaction with the point of view. While we are still through the mind of Olive, we hear Christopher’s words and feel Olive not understanding, still, what she has done wrong. Then, at the end, when she is going back home and she thinks of begging Christopher to take her back-the reader is seeing her still not get it. The story of understanding why Olive and Christopher’s relationship had to be done and Strout executed it perfectly. While Olive still refuses to admit that something might be her fault, the reader gets it.

Security

This chapter of OK is significant in the life of the main character in that the scenes of her life thus far have changed radically with her visit to NY to see her son and new wife. Her changing status, with her husband’s stroke and residence now in a nursing home, has made her an almost-widow, and she is adjusting, slowly. I think she hopes the visit with Christopher will help her find some emotional ground to gain purchase as she navigates the changes life is handing her. Olive is seriously off balance, and struggling to cope with life in general, as Strout shows through the scenes of Olive’s visit to NYC.

She finds, in the end, only a stranger son, his strange wife and a strange situation she would not willingly endure. Such are the vagaries of old age. Everything changes, and older folks are too tired, too drained, or simply too impassive to wish to change with them. Christopher complains at the outset – because he can’t locate his mother in the busy airport, “Why can’t you just get a cell phone like everyone else?” (p203)

The “place” Olive had hoped to find in her son’s affections is denied her, as Christopher makes demands, and is irritated more often than not. The parrot offers more than a little comic relief to the situation.

As Olive attempts to adjust for the sake of her family, she is reminded of past scenes – those with Jim O’Casey and their attraction is finally explained as her “foolish happiness.” (p213) She had said she would leave Henry; but it is doubtful she could have really done so.

Olive finds herself happy simply to be in close proximity to Christopher, and enjoys small pleasures, like the ice cream (p225). Her return to the airport to go home is another unsettling place that causes her to make semi-conscious remarks that bring security to her side, and help her eliminate lines…or so it seems.

Olive is on a merry-go-round of emotions, flashbacks, familial adjustments, and sheer terror from being in such a large city, with unknown dangers lurking. She copes for as long as she is able, then quickly retreats to the semi-comfort of her lonely home.

“Fits”

 The two people who died were in their early sixties. . . . (p. 429)

We talked last class about beginning with the most unbelievable detail of a story. That way, the reader has to believe it. In “Fits,” Alice Munro does this by leading with the death of the Weebles. Then she goes back and talks about what the Weebles were like and about Peg and Robert. This approach also initially hinders the reader from knowing who the main characters are. At the end of the first page, I found myself wondering why we got Peg and Robert’s names right off the bat but had no name for this couple who had died. Even after finishing “Fits,”  I couldn’t figure out why Munro would want to do this. Why not start off with Peg and Robert and then introduce the Weebles, since this is a story about Peg and Robert? I’ve finally decided that (1) this story is also about the Weebles, and (2) the story’s juxtaposition in the beginning allows Munro to start off with putting the idea in the reader’s mind that the Weebles and Peg and Robert are connected in an important way. Say she began the story with the introduction on p. 436:

She used the Weebles’ first names, which she barely knew. Walter and Nora. They had moved in last April, and since then they had been away on two trips, so she didn’t feel she knew them at all well . . .

This would make for a less gripping opening. Munro wants to focus on their connection, on the Weebles’ significance to Peg and Robert’s life, instead of on the distance between the two couples.

One of the other most notable choices Munro made occurs on p. 437:

She turned at the top of the stairs toward the Weebles’ bedroom. She had never been upstairs in this house before, but she knew where that would be. It would be the extended room at the front, with the wide window overlooking the street.

The door of that room was open.

Munro doesn’t take the reader inside that room. Instead, letting the reader imagine what’s in there–and not only imagine, but know, with the same kind of dread or ominousness Peg must feel–is more disturbing than an explicit description of gore and dead bodies. The tension of the scene is all in the anticipation and expectation, not the discovery.

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Strout, “Security”

“The house she and Henry had built for Chris back home in Maine had been beautiful—filled with light, the windows large to show the lawns, and lilies, and fir trees.”

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I remember the first time I had heard of the “Butterfly Effect,” the example demonstrated the effects of a butterfly flapping its wings and how that has caused chaos. It is speculated that when the butterfly flapped its wings it caused the air to move, from a slow gust, to build until it is a hurricane level catastrophe. In return the hurricane would wipe out a society. I feel this is the best way to describe the story of Olive.

All her life she has flapped her wings: aka: her love, her anger, her moods, her opinions, and especially her attitude. The build up of each interaction with Olive has now caused the hurricane that now rocks her world, but like the butterfly, she is still innocent and unaware of what her actions are doing. Olive is frightened and shocked at her discovery that she is being blamed for his misery.

In class we have discussed twists and like Olive, I, too, was blindsided by the son. Henry seemed overly hard on him in the story “the pharmacist.” I took this brief interaction with father and son as the definition of the relationship, while Olive and Christopher appeared to be “thick as thieves.”

It is heart breaking to see Olive grieve and being confused as to what she has done wrong, because she felt she was doing everything she could to give her son a beautiful life. It is also clear that she did this out of love for her son.

What Strout did in this story was bring the story full circle, we are once again introduced to Jim O’Casey, and her reflection on life if she had run away with him. What is truly sad is that the only one who stopped her was the her son. She showed love by thinking of Christopher and how that would have affected him. It is so hard to explain all the complexity of character and emotion that Strout knitted together in this story. How she started with happiness and slowly spiraled it into darkness.

Strout also used this story to help bring us closer to Christopher and his real reasons why he will not move back to Crosby. It also helps the reader see why Christopher seems so distant and even cruel. in Christopher’s eyes it was his mother that was cruel.

Tumors and Butterflies tells the story of Uchenna Okoli, a young woman who has grown up in a household rife with domestic violence. It is told through a first person limited perspective. Her mother, like some domestic violence victims, rationalizes her decision to stay with her husband, partly because he was sick with thyroid cancer and mostly, because he has gotten her so mixed up/dependant on him that she can see no other way.

Because of the emotional complexities of the situation, she has a tendency to involve her daughter in the unhealthy family dynamics. At times, she attempts to make Uchenna feel guilty for not putting up with it, whether it was something like requesting giving Uchenna giving her dad her cell phone number and wondering why the refusal, or even at the end of the story,when she busted out in tears because the truth about Uchenna felt about everything had hurt her. I also can see that there were manipulative aspects to the mother’s personality, especially when she used the aspect of the father being diabetic and “Do you want to be responsible for destroying his health?” (pg. 177) to keep her daughter silent.

Uchenna’s father seems to look at the violence, as not being violent in the conventional sense of the word, but as a form of discipline. Uchenna asked that herself at one point, “ I wonder how he is able to box up all his abuse under the category of discipline. Does his conscience really tell him that discipline is all that it has been?” (pg. 188)

Uchenna, herself, sometimes fed into the madness on her own: “I think about my first year in college, how I was banned from coming home, how she compromised and allowed me to sneak in at night. There’s something different, something almost studying in being wanted.” (pg.183)

Butterflies should be soft and beautiful, but i imagine that perhaps this is the issue with Papa’s thyroid. Perhaps his thyroid has never been quite the way it should be. I imagine removing it from his neck might result in the change that we always wanted.” (pg,179).

This was simple in its beauty to me because of the simple fact that neither one of Uchenna’s parents are what they should be – the father should be there for his daughter without resulting to such methods of being disinherited when he doesn’t get away/doesn’t get the respect that the title of father automatically deserves. and with the mother, it was the fact that she put her husbands needs before her daughter. When Uchenna said at the end, “Catering to an abusive person is one thing, but forcing others to do the same, whatever your reasons, is its own form of abuse.“, I couldn’t help but applaud because of the truthfulness of it.

The reader saw aspects of their lives in Massachusetts. When the mother in the story went off to Florida, we saw aspects of the husbands’ occasional moments of love and affection when he made Uchenna, then about seven or eight, a sandwich. As she grew older, she kept that memory safe because as she said, it was the first time that she had seen that part of him. Then we went back to the violent aspect, because the husband had turned around, upon the mother’s return, hit her hard enough that bruises showed on the Mass’ drivers license.

Tumours and Butterflies

The sense of place in this story is not in Boston or New Jersey, but is behind closed doors where no one can see the father’s abusive, crude behavior toward mother and child.

The narrator of the story is a young girl that grows to womanhood in an abusive relationship where her father beats her mother, and the mother, fearful of losing any and everything, coaxes her husband into staying, and her daughter into lying.

The daughter can see what the abuse is doing to her mother, and so is willing to help out with the sick father, and to stay hidden at her mother’s behest so that the father won’t become upset. Too late. The father LIVES upset.

Her mother sees things so differently than the narrator. “Putting his needs first? She asks. ‘I’ve never once put his needs before yours.’  …Mama did not want to anger him by demanding that I be allowed to come back home.” (P192)

The daughter finally has had enough and leaves the sad situation, wondering whether or not her father ever understands why. (p196)

Lichen Designs

Yeah, I know this is late, but here it is now…..

Lichen Designs

I “wonder” at these two stories coming out on the syllabus together, as they are equally disgusting.

Munro uses Lichen to “liken” her husband’s most recent paramour’s nude photo to that of a fungus. Her husband is stricken with an intemperate desire for women of every ilk, except his wife. She, however is used to that, given that she is living alone, and apparently enjoying it, while her erstwhile husband is living with one woman and lusting after yet another. They seem to be quite comfortable with their arrangements, as demonstrated on the opening page when the husband arrives with his live-in lover, and they are greeted by his wife as if they were cousins. They begin a very ordinary, every-day chat about the berries Stella is picking as they arrived. (P352).  He comes once every summer to see Stella’s elderly father on his birthday.  But David revels in his darkness: he walks to a pay phone and calls his would-be mistress, and contemplates that he still loves his wife, and is tolerating his live-in. This man is a mess.

The author uses the phone booth scene to show David’s desperation to have the object of his desire, but his fear of letting go of Catherine’s “sure thing.” He LOVES the game.

 

Designs

On the other hand, there is the triangle between Nonso, Ifeinwa, and Celeste. Hidden from his live-in fiancée at first, Nonsona lets her see him with his lover, as they all become further “acquainted.”  (On the night of their official engagement? Really??) Now that she has lived with him for 18 months, she is shocked beyond belief that she is witnessing the sexual side to his and Celeste’s relationship (p166) – obviously nothing to do with the business side. Ifeinwa and Nonso have known each other since grade school (p156). But it seems he has grown into a man of varied tastes. “Ineinwa enters the room, beaming, her smile reminds me of Celeste’s, but nothing else about her is like Celeste. She is gentle where Celeste is harsh, submissive where Celeste commands. She was that way even in primary school: pliant and yielding; and so I kept her close.” (p158)

It is plain that Nonso is setting the stage to have his cake and eat it too. Too bad we didn’t get to see the final scene – ie what Ifeinwa will do with this information that she has suspected, and is now confirmed.

 

It seems that Nonso and David are both attempting to stay in the past or stay connected to the past, and yet take other lovers to satisfy their base desires, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

And, it doesn’t seem to matter if one has money or one is poor as a church mouse. They are both voyeuristic, and they both want what they want. And “ the devil take the hindermost.”

The authors have done a masterful job of portraying the scum of the earth.

“Designs”

As with Munro’s “Moons of Jupiter,” I loved the way Okparanta structured “Designs” so as to reveal key information to the reader at just the right moment. Before Okparanta even addresses Nonso’s affair with Celeste, she brings to the reader’s attention the thought of something going on.

Ifeinwa enters the room, beaming. Her smile reminds me of Celeste’s, but nothing else about her is like Celeste. She is gentle where Celeste is harsh, submissive where Celeste commands. (p. 158)

Comparisons like these first made me think of Ifeinwa and Celeste as equals in Nonso’s mind, rather than Ifeinwa being first in Nonso’s life, as one might expect his fiancee to be. In a similar way, the text hints that any marriage between Ifeinwa and Nonso will not be happy. Okparanta accomplishes this in large part through tiny disagreements.

“It’s Friday,” she says. “We have no weekend plans. Nonso, we should celebrate our engagement this weekend.”

I shake my head. “We should rest,” I say. . . .

From the corner of my eye, I see that she is nodding slowly–hesitantly nodding her consent. “Okay,” she says, reluctantly. “Okay.” (p. 158)

These disagreements also serve to illustrate the fact that Nonso does not care about Ifeinwa as much as himself. His is a selfish love:

She used to buy fufu at the African store down the street. Then she’d spend hours preparing okra soup to eat with the fufu–this used to be her favourite meal. But the odours of the soup and the fufu would rise in the air and would linger, sometimes for days at a time. Eventually I had no choice but to protest. Too rancid, I explained. Not at all American scents.

When she could no longer bear my complaints, she gave in and did away with the fufu and okra soup. (p. 156)

Every couple has to come to compromises, but this story consistently shows Ifeinwa being the one to back down and settle for less. Because the story is told in first-person, the reader can also get a feel for the extent to which Nonso picks up on Ifeinwa’s disappointment about these disagreements and then pointedly ignores her feelings on the matter at hand. In the discussion about celebrating the engagement, for example, he notices that Ifeinwa agrees only “reluctantly” (158).

There are also subtle foreshadowings of the affair, such as the moment when Ifeinwa asks, “So, this is what you and Celeste were doing, all this time? Finding a way to plant my ring into that tuber of yam?” (p. 158). Because of the earlier comparisons between Ifeinwa and Celeste, the reader is primed to be suspicious of what Nonso and Celeste were really doing. That suspicion continues to color the way the reader views Celeste and her interactions with Nonso when Celeste finally enters the scene and interacts with the other characters in person.

Celeste enters, her smile wide, her eyes glowing. Her lashes are long and straight, not tightly curled like Ifeinwa’s. She breathes deeply, and I watch its effect on her chest. (p. 160)

With great respect for the reader’s intelligence, Okparanta provides these sorts of clues and lets the reader figure it out before the affair ever becomes explicitly acknowledged in the text. At times, like with the above quote, Nonso’s feelings are clear. At other times, the 1st-person narrative limits the extent to which the reader understands the situation.

Celeste takes Ifeinwa’s hand in hers. They mock-examine the ring. They laugh and they hop about like little girls in a playground, primary-school students who have been let outside for recess after lunch. (p. 160)

For instance, in the scene above, it’s not immediately clear whether Celeste’s delight in Ifeinwa’s ring is genuine or not, as the reader is not inside either of their heads. The true nature of Celeste’s feelings emerges only at the end of the story, when Nonso sees her and the situation with new eyes.

Her smile fades away, and her eyes grow pensive. And then she says, “It’s late. Past nine o’clock. Celeste will be stopping by again this late?” (p. 159)

In other places, as in the passage above, Nonso may not pick up on Ifeinwa’s tension regarding Celeste, whereas the reader does. Okparanta grows more explicit with this tension as the story progresses:

. . . I announce to Ifeinwa that I should have returned the tube right away to Celeste. I tell her that I will run downstairs with it. Who knows, perhaps I will catch Celeste still on Lenox Street, maybe at worst on Beacon Street.

Ifeinwa only nods. For a moment I think I see a question forming in her eyes. But she shakes it away. “Well, hurry up,” she says. (p. 164)

Overall, this leads to a picture in the reader’s mind of a woman more aware and knowing than Nonso gives her credit for.

Even in the near darkness, there is something pure about her face. It is after all artless and unprocessed in a way that Celeste’s is not. (p. 165)

The structure of “Designs” also controls the extent of the reader’s familiarity with the narrator and with the relationships in the story, so that, for instance, it is not until the proposal that it becomes clear that the narrator is a man. This knowledge of characters and relationship histories builds in tandem with the interpersonal tension from page to page.

The one aspect of the story that remains unclear to me is why Celeste is sabotaging Ifeinwa and Nonso’s relationship. Does she act out of some spite or wickedness inherent to her personality, or is this personal, a way of hurting Nonso and/or Ifeinwa? Given Nonso’s long history with Celeste, I suspect the latter, stemming from Celeste’s jealousy, but I can’t say for sure because it seems odd to me that Celeste would have continued to sleep with Nonso for years into his relationship with Ifeinwa if she really minded being just the “other woman.”

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butterflyabuseThere is so much emotional terrain in Okparanta, “Tumours and Butterflies.” Okparanta uses stories like this to share a message… I can’t say if it is a moral or not, but it is close to it. This particular story really focuses on escaping abuse, and the many ways people deal with domestic abuse. Reading it, I felt invested in all the characters, I wanted the mother to leave, or the daughter to fight back, or even for the father to change, but that is not what happened. I felt upset with the ending. The daughter’s behavior at the end, I feel is morally wrong. I can understand the daughter wanting to leave and so her leaving the situation is very understandable and acceptable, but for the daughter to become the abuser, is very wrong and hard to take. I do not mean that Okparanta wanted to daughter to be abusive, in fact to others it might seem heroic, but to me it was not, it was painful to read and it made me sad. This is why I can’t say if this is a moral tale, it lacks something that says, “this is the way a story like this should end, and how you can learn to do this too if you were in this type of situation.”

Okparanta writing is so beautiful and believable and the words not only jump off the page they become a movie or show inside my mind, and I can see everything. I can see the world in which these people live, the markets they use, the smells, the sounds, and the conversations. It is no wonder why this book is part of our Sense of Place class, the writing is living and authentic.

Who,who, does not have their basket of trips?” It isn’t right. Molly Collins said that today, standing out by the church. It isn’t right. Well. It isnt.” (pg. 180).

There are different aspects of pain and regret present in the different journeys of the characters in “Basket of Trips”. Literally,the basket of trips literally was the basket of brochures in the closet that Marlene and her husband were planning to before he got sick and passed away. Not only did she had to deal with letting go of what she hoped to do with her husband; she has to start the process of figuring out how her husband actually was/let go of who she thought he was.

I’m assuming that Kerry and Marlene’s husband had some type of affair the summer after Ed Junior graduated from high school. Kerry had spilled her guts in the first place but she felt guilty “ …I was punishing her by keeping on being nice to her. She got drunk today and started saying how good I got her, killing her and Ed with kindness that way.”(pg. 178). Essentially, she thought that Marlene had already knew. Marlene doesn’t believe that it was just one time and was pissed/disappointed about it to the extent that she had a knife, however non -seriously to the unconscious,, drunken form of Kerry.

With Olive, her ‘basket of trips’ (hopes, dreams, etc) revolves around her son and husband. There is anger/disappointment at Christopher: “Never, in a hundred years, would Olive tell Molly Collins, or anyone else, how terrible it was when Christopher came back to visit his father in the nursing home, how terse he was with her, how he went back early – this man who was dearly loved son.” (pg.168).

Because of that distance she has from her son, she feels jealous of the connections people have with others. “An unreachability” (pg. 171) was how she described it. “No, she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” (pg. 172). That dark encasement also is due to the distance due because of her husband’s illness. Its not as though he is leaving her on purpose but it might seem that way to her. “ And that was the end of their life. Henry got out of the car and fell down. Never stood up again, never walked down the pebble path to the house again, never said an intelligible word again. Then he went blind; now he will never see her again.” (pg. 173).

She thinks of Eddie Junior down there, skipping stones, and she could only just remember that feeling herself, being young enough to pick up a rock, throw it out to sea with force, still young enough to do that, throw that damn stone.” (pg.180)

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Basket of trips

basketOlive thinks, “Who does not have their basket of trips?”

Strout takes on a different tone in this story, it’s more thoughtful, more introspective. Olive is observing instead of judging, she watches the scene with the boy skipping stones and takes pride in what she sees, she notices the drunk girl, but for once she does not make the harsh commits we are used to her making. She, of course, is still Olive, and her character is not lost, but something has changed with her and we can see that in this story.

I like that Strout has given us another “slice” of Olive. Strout uses Olive in so many ways, but I really think she uses Olive and her abrasive mannerism as a way to force the reader into a situation that has strong emotional merit, and gives us a lifeline when the subject matter is difficult, sad, or sometimes frightening (such as being held up by gun point).

Strout has a way of mixing very dark humor with frightening realities, Marlene and Olive talk about the “basket of trips” but it Strout uses it as a metaphor for several different things like pain, love, adventure and hope; It’s the picture of life stored in a basket of pamphlets.

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