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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