Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Any education in American short fiction would be incomplete without a reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” first published in The New Yorker in 1948.

Jackson’s story takes place over an hour or two in a small town of 300 people, gathered for the annual lottery. Jackson doesn’t overwhelm the reader with description or background; what we can gather from the story is that the lottery is an annual tradition linked in people’s minds to the quality of the year’s crops. Some towns have recently discontinued their own lotteries, but with a sense of tradition and the inevitable, the lottery continues in the town of Jackson’s story.

Years ago, when I first read “The Lottery”, I was frustrated by this lack of background information. I didn’t like the story, and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. On rereads, though, the slow build to the inevitable end of the story is almost excruciating, heightened because Jackson (like Carol Emshwiller, author of the story I wrote about last Sunday) knows when to give more detail and when to leave it to the reader.

You can read “The Lottery” in a scanned edition of the 1948 New Yorker. If that doesn’t work, there is a typo-riddled version available here.

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Classic Read: George Orwell’s Animal Farm

George Orwell calls Animal Farm a “fairy story,” which at first seemed an odd way of labeling the work but, now that I’ve finished, seems perfect.

It’s partly that a fairy tale is the best name for Orwell’s story, in which we don’t have characters so much as we have representations of characters, and partly that a fairy tale is the perfect means of couching Orwell’s political commentary precisely because characters don’t need to be “characters” or have distinct and developing personalities of their own.

It is, too, that Animal Farm has so well taken on certain attributes of the fairy tale in its own life as a book. This was my first time reading Orwell’s novel/fable/fairy story, but the book is one so ingrained in our literary and political culture that I was familiar with the story and its most famous line, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” long before reading it. As with the stories of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, Orwell’s is one you can be familiar with and reference even without having read it.

I’m not, generally speaking, interested in the intersection of literature and politics because the result of such marriages always seems so lacking to me. (Not a strong political commentary nor a strong piece of literature, but the bastard child of the two.) Again, though, Orwell’s labeling of his book frees it from the limitations of such meldings of politics and literature, because fairy tales by their nature don’t require the sort of strong characterization needed for a good work of literature. Orwell’s farm and its animals are so clearly stand-ins for people (the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being Trotsky and Stalin) or meant to encompass huge classes of people (the horse Boxer, who never manages to learn the alphabet past “A, B, C, D” but who works nobly and tirelessly for the farm’s goals) that he avoids the whole question of whether his characters are, well, well-characterized. They’re well-characterized in the way they need to be for this book, and that’s the beginning and end of it.

Animal Farm is especially interesting as a book that suggests how totalitarianism was viewed back when Orwell was writing. The popular view may not have been the right one, but as Russell Baker writes in the preface to the Signet Classic edition, Animal Farm helps to capture what it was about totalitarianism that led to decades of policies (I am thinking solely from an American perspective – give me a break, I grew up learning about the Red Scare and the domino theory and the Vietnam War) aimed at ending Communist expansion.

Animal Farm is a quick and affecting read, and one that’s doubly interesting for its own history as a book. Orwell chose well in defining his work as a fairy story and his writing, clean and simple, serves the story rather than announcing itself worthy of attention for itself alone. The prose is what it needs to be, what it should be, for this type of story. Animal Farm strikes me as one of those rare cases when subject and style are perfectly matched.

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Review: Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

This is a review that needs some disclaimers. First, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a review copy, provided to me by the publisher.

Second, as anyone who has read my review of Geraldine Brooks’s March knows, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and was confused and saddened by the way Brooks took famous historical figures and dragged them, kicking and screaming and protesting that the dates just don’t work with the storyline of Little Women, into her novel.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that I started reading The Paris Wife with pretty low expectations. If I didn’t like what Brooks did by inserting words into Thoreau’s mouth, I figured, I really wouldn’t like what McLain was planning to do with Hemingway, a figure who is a sort of godhead in my literary ranking of things.

I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It’s readable and fun and, because McLain is writing about characters who did (documentably) interact with all the famous figures scattered through her novel, not offensive to me in the same way March was.

The Paris Wife centers around Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Richardson was nearing thirty when she married Hemingway, still in his early twenties, in 1921, and for most of their marriage they lived in Paris. The couple divorced in 1926 after Hadley learned of an affair Hemingway was having with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife.

McLain’s story works because Hadley is an outsider to so much of what Hemingway’s Paris social circle is about. Surrounded by women who drink, smoke, curse, have careers of their own and treat men as things to be tried on and cast off, Hadley views herself as, first and foremost, Hemingway’s wife and supporter. That’s not to say that she’s ambivalent about her role; McLain frequently shows her questioning to what degree she should put up with Hemingway’s devotion to his work, which nearly always comes at her expense. But Hadley becomes sympathetic because she is located so far from the person Hemingway becomes and the sort of people who help him become that way; as one character notes near novel’s end, it’s Hadley who supported Hemingway through the start of his career, but she can’t take him any farther.

The novel is told largely from Hadley’s point of view, in clean prose that can sometimes be heavy on the “-ly” but never strains too hard for emotion. If you are looking for one reason why I prefer McLain’s book to Brook’s March – and I know that the two deal with entirely different subjects and time periods and only loosely fall under the same umbrella of “historical fiction,” but I’m going with what I got – it’s that McLain’s prose at no point made me feel like I was about to drown in a vat of violet-scented water. (And speaking of which, one line I particularly liked: “Bob McAlmon vomited neatly in the flowerbeds of all the best cafes…” [197].)

Hemingway and Hadley in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922

My only complaint against the book comes in the five sections that aren’t told from Hadley’s point of view, but focus exclusively on Hemingway. Usually these chapters are about something that Hadley doesn’t know, or not exactly; so, usually they’re about a woman Hemingway’s been with. But there’s not a real reason for these chapters, not that I can see. That Hemingway had a relationship with Hadley’s friend Kate, if not stated outright, is clear enough from Hadley and Kate’s strained relationship once Hemingway and Hadley become romantically involved. Likewise, there’s no need to flat-out tell the reader, in a special chapter, that Hemingway and Pfeiffer are having an affair, because Hadley suspects enough that the reader can suss it out without additional aid in the form of a chapter that could be titled “How I accidentally slept with my wife’s friend and then kept doing it.” McLain could have cut these sections from the novel and showed more trust in the reader’s ability to piece together what Hemingway is doing while Hadley’s at home with their child.

These five chapters, unevenly scattered throughout the novel, are infrequent enough that they don’t disrupt the narrative flow. The Paris Wife is a fun read, and reminded me that it’s about time I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – his own account (edited and fussed over by descendants and former spouses) of his years in Paris with Hadley.

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Story Sundays: Carol Emshwiller’s “Mrs. Jones”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Lemme get this out of the way early: Carol Emshwiller’s “Mrs. Jones” is about as perfect as a short story can be. Emshwiller knows just when to stop giving information, when to leave it to the reader to build on what she’s giving us to make the story even creepier and more horrifying and more fantastic than it already is.

“Mrs. Jones” is about two sisters, Cora and Janice, who live together but whose lives diverge and loop around each other in sometimes gorgeous ways. Not just that Janice is thin to Cora’s fat, or that Janice rises late and Cora early, but the ways in which they can effortlessly move about their house without seeing each other:

Cora comes back while Janice is upstairs taking her nap. She sits down in the front room and reads an article in the Reader’s Digest about how to help your husband communicate. When she hears Janice come down the stairs, Cora goes up for her nap.

At story’s open they see a flickering light in their orchard and with it evidence that someone, or something, has been there: partially-eaten apples, vomit, claw marks. It’s a kind of one-upmanship when Janice goes out into the orchard one night to find whatever’s been out there, to bring it back to their home and keep it in their basement and then…well, to go any further would spoil what Emshwiller’s laid out for her readers. But like I said, she knows when to stop telling us what’s happening, to leave it to the imagination:

As soon as Janice hears the old pickup crunch away on the gravel drive, she goes down in the basement, bringing along Father’s old straight razor (freshly sharpened), rubbing alcohol, and bandages. Also, to make it easier on him, a bottle of sherry.

But that’s all of that we see. We know what Janice does, of course, but Emshwiller recognizes the value in leaving the rest of this scene to the reader.

“Mrs. Jones” is a story from Emshwiller’s 2002 collection, Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories (Small Beer Press), so if you like this story check out that book as well. If it’s possible to have a crush on a small press (and it is, it totally is) I have one on Small Beer.

Read “Mrs. Jones”

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On Rereading
February 17, 2011, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , , ,

When I’d been in Macedonia a few months and my parents were figuring out what to send me in a package (reliable standbys, for those taking notes, are Reese’s Cups, magic markers and SillyBandz – don’t ask) I said something about wanting some books and we decided that Nabokov was, really, our only option. My mom couldn’t believe that I hadn’t brought anything by Nabokov, and once she said that I couldn’t believe either. What had I been thinking, coming to Macedonia with The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory & Criticism (I’ve opened it one time) and John Cheever’s complete stories (I’ve read one of them) but nothing by Nabokov?

I can’t at this point remember what informed my packing decisions of September 2009, but probably I didn’t bring any Nabokov because I thought his books would be too “heavy” for the Peace Corps (thus the Norton and Cheever for some light reading?) and because I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave the books behind me in Macedonia. It is one thing to transport books halfway across the globe, another entirely to carry them back. I’ve now got Ada, or Ardor, Pnin and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight here, and except for when I let go of Pnin for a couple months I haven’t even considered loaning the books to other volunteers, for fear they, and all my notes and underlinings, would be forever lost.

I take my rereading most seriously when it comes to Nabokov, in the sense that I regard his books as records of my own history and reading as much as anything. I should buy a fresh copy of Ada because mine is such a disaster, but I doubt I ever will because I enjoy reading my past readings as much as anything else. But when I look over books I’ve read in the past year or so, I have to suspect that I’m more of a rereader than many people, and I want to know why.

About a third of the books I read last year were rereads. I use the term broadly; I don’t just mean that I read a book for a second time, but that I’ve read a book for a second or third or fourth time, exact numbers being hard to come by. Some of these are children’s books, which I see, reading-wise, as the equivalent of watching John Hughes movies, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the tenth time, or Gilmore Girls reruns. They’re comforting and remind me of my childhood, when I believed that anything was possible (like that I could grow up to be a grizzly bear scientist despite a generalized fear of large animals, blood and the sciences).

But there are also the other rereads, the Nabokov and Charles Portis, my third (or is it my fourth?) run through of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all the classics I first read in high school and have only recently discovered to be Not Terrible. Or the way how, when I visited the Peace Corps library on Monday, it wasn’t the unexperienced books that I got excited over and decided were worth carrying three hours back to my town, but Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (this will be my third read?) and Paradise (second). Or how half the books I’ve lined up to read soon (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Tree of Smoke, The Savage Detectives, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Lolita) are rereads. There’s a reason, too, why the first book I want to read when I get back to the states is Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases (for the third time).

Nabokov once said:

… one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do no have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. (from Lectures on Literature)

He isn’t discussing rereading in the way I am, but his general point – that to read a novel is a laborious process and that an understanding of a novel builds slowly because we cannot take in the whole of the work at once – is where I aim when I start to think about rereading. Reading is work in a way that looking at a painting or watching a film or an episode of Gilmore Girls isn’t, and it’s not work that I think can be completed with one go-round. To read Lolita one time isn’t really to read it; it’s to prepare you for the second reading, when you’ll be able to begin understanding the novel, its narrative form and its narrative time.

Maybe my love of rereading is nothing more than a sign that I haven’t outgrown that phase of wanting the same bedtime story every night, just that I’m old enough now to cloak that search for the comforting and familiar in loftier language. Whatever inspires it, I often feel the only reason I read new books is my hope that I’m going to find one that lands on my “to reread” shelf, like Of Mice & Men, which was actually only on there about twenty seconds because I reread it immediately after finishing it.

What’s the point of reading, if not to find the books you’re going to reread?

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Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love is probably one of those books that’s easier to dislike in theory than in fact. So many things about Gilbert’s journey – the idea of travel as a means to finding oneself rather than experiencing a different culture, “cherry picking” bits and pieces of different religions, embarking on a journey of self-discovery financed by a publishing house – offend me, but she has a likable enough voice that most of these offenses became less grating to me as I read her memoir.

Her writing is funny enough, at times, but she swerves between treating subjects with a pleasant and light humor to going all purple-y about God and the universe and the way she experiences the world around her. The relative percentage of say, funny vs. over-the-top prose, changes drastically from section to section, so that in some ways this felt like three books to me, or at least three “novella-ish” memoirs linked because they happened to occur within the span of one year.

The first section of Gilbert’s memoir, about her travels in Italy, was by far my favorite. As a person who for a year and a half has not eaten real Italian food (I make a mean tomato sauce out of the tomatoes which are fifty cents a kilo in summer, but that is one tomato sauce out of a year and a half of being offered spaghetti with mayonnaise), I wanted Gilbert to spend another two hundred pages telling me about all the pizza she ate and wine she drank.

Second we’ve got four months at an ashram. As an atheist with not even the slightest inclination towards “spirituality,” I found Gilbert’s prose here to be too much – I am pretty sure my mouth was hanging open all through the second part of the book, me whispering, “No! People really write things like this?”

And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon in India was indescribable, even though it was. I’ll try to explain anyway. Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (199)

Gilbert is still meditating and thinking on God when she hits Bali in the third and final section of the book, but here it’s not so much and it’s coupled with her meeting and falling in love with a Brazilian, Felipe. (My googling revealed, unfortunately, that he does not look like Javier Bardem.)

That I’m in the Peace Corps influences my reading of this book. Whatever you claim when you’re applying, most people try to join Peace Corps as much to “discover themselves” as to “help people,” so I can’t be too critical of Gilbert’s decision to travel solely as a means of self-discovery. There is something about travel or life abroad that we seem to universally agree acts as a positive agent of change, and while you can’t leave your problems behind you in the states you can at least hope that at the end of ….. (whatever, a year traveling the world, two years in the Peace Corps) you’ll return home a better person.

This is a cheap way of summarizing my reading of the book, though, so today we’ll be getting some outsider opinions. Right now (well, I wrote this on Sunday – so “right now” on Sunday) I am in my friend Joany’s apartment sitting next to my friend Jackie, a former Peace Corps volunteer who moved to Greece to, as Gilbert puts it, “idle at the traffic light” with her Greek boyfriend (who from the back looks suspiciously like her Macedonian language instructor from Peace Corps training). Jackie is, I think, uniquely qualified to comment on Gilbert’s book because, you know, she lives in Greece with a Greek boyfriend.

Me: Jackie, what are your thoughts on this book?

Jackie: (makes thoughtful noises) Elizabeth Gilbert is a narcissist. But I kind of like it, because I’m one too. Maybe anyone who’s on a journey of self-discovery is slightly narcissistic.

Joany: No…. (lays down)

Jackie: (laughs, picks at beaded cord on sweatpants) I have mixed feelings about the message it sends to women, because it says if I just indulge myself and find my spiritual center, I’ll be rewarded with a man at the end.

Joany: You guys are making me not want to read this book.

Jackie: Joany, who recently embarked on page one.

(long pause)

Jackie: But then I also find myself, at times, really relating.

And that’s about it, I guess. Countless aspects of the book are offensive, but enough of me relates to Gilbert and wonders if whether, by “finding myself,” I’ll be able to meet the man of dreams (Javier Bardem, apparently) that I can’t bash the book as much as I did before reading it. Living abroad, though, isn’t always as simple as Gilbert makes it appear, and I worry that readers will think, for one, the being rewarded with a man bit, and for two, that life abroad is a cure-all for all your problems. It’s not. Elizabeth Gilbert may have finished her year of travel a changed woman, but for most of us… we will be exactly the same person at the end of our travels as we were at the beginning, albeit with a few more stamps in our passports.

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Story Sundays: Alison Smith’s “The Specialist”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” from a 2003 issue of McSweeney’s, is about a woman with an incurable ache, about “the little lady with the big empty.” She visits doctor after doctor in an attempt to find a cure for her pains, and with some of them there is this odd romantic or sexual interest in Alice and her internal aches. One of her doctors takes her out to dinner:

He touched her hand. She held her napkin. She could not eat. Everything tasted incurable. The rice, the saffron asparagus soufflé, the flaming liquor in the dessert—all of it, incurable.

Failing to find a doctor who can help her, Alice moves to New York. Smith’s description of the Alice’s time in New York is pitch-perfect, from her riding the subways to finding take-out to working day after day in a bookstore:

Then Alice discovered take-out. As she did not have a phone in her one-room walk-up, she had to call from the payphone on the corner when she wanted to place an order. But she did not mind. Alice liked everything about take-out. She liked the warm white boxes with their fold-away lids, the plastic utensils, the stiff paper bags that held in the gooey warmth. She believed that a city which could deliver such delicacies right to your door was a city of great promise. Alice stayed up late, ate Indian lentil soup from a box and said, out loud, “This is it. This is where I’ll find it.”

Alice tries to stop treatment but that only increases the pain inside her, and at last she visits the “specialist,” who finds that inside her body is a vast tundra. They travel from one medical conference to another, then enter the talk show circuit, and Alice’s place in all this – as an observer of her own body rather than an active participant in any of these events – is unnerving.

The central image of this story is nearly excessive and too obvious, but Smith’s understated writing style saves it and makes the image, and the story, work.

“The Specialist” was adapted as a short film, “The Big Empty,” for the first issue of Wholphin. You can watch the film here. It’s kind of interesting to watch the film and see how they’ve adapted it, though I prefer the short story.

Read “The Specialist”