“Hateful Things” by Sei Shonagon

In this early example of the Japanese essay, Shonagon lists characteristics, habits, etc. that she finds hateful. Most of these annoyances are articulated in a sentence, maybe two, thus the essay tends to have a bit of an abrupt feeling as Shonagon jumps from one annoyance to the next. The brief paragraphs are tied together with a common theme, but Shonagon neglected, indeed didn’t feel the need, to create a flow to the piece. This list feels very much like a list.

According to the nice little introduction to Shonagon and this work provided in my mighty book of essays, “Hateful Things” is one of many lists that Shonagon made in her journal. The editor praises Shonagon in his introduction as “an unapologetic maverick—an outspoken, truly independent woman.” While I’m not inclined to disagree, one must remain aware that these pieces were written in a personal journal, presumably not intended for public consumption. Therefore, Shonagon might have felt more comfortable discussing her views on the etiquette of her lovers than she would in a more public arena.

“Hateful Things” does provide a portrait of a fiercely opinionated individual, unafraid of revealing her quirks and her snobberies. She also demonstrates something of an obsession with the pretenses of societal expectations. It would be nice if the earliest female writer included in this collection ruminated on, I don’t know, deeply philosophical things, like the plight of women or hermit crabs in her respective society, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect every woman to be a premodern example of a feminist.

‘The House on Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros (1984)

This novel seems like a modern-day version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In Gilman’s story the unnamed narrator is literally imprisoned in a room that separates her from the rest of her family and the outside world. Gilman wrote the piece to protest a popular medical treatment of her time, which prescribed total bed rest and isolation for women suffering from depression. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” describes the insanity that this treatment can cause. But more than that, the short story provides social commentary on women’s limited roles in society.

Like the narrator in Gilman’s story, Cisneros’ narrator Esperanza feels a similar imprisonment. Gilman’s narrator’s surroundings are literally meant to imprison her: the bars at the window, the gate at the top of the stairs, steel rings on the wall, and the nailed-down bedstead. Esperanza’s surroundings, the house on Mango Street, are not so obviously ominous but are equally imprisoning. Rather than being confined on the basis of her sex, Esperanza is trapped both ethnically and economically. Her house, indeed her neighborhood, defines her place in society.

"Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin

In this essay, James Baldwin explores the complexities of both race relationships and familial relationships. Concerning his relationship with his father, Baldwin admits toward the beginning of the essay: “We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride.” This admission sets the tone for the rest of the essay, an idea of both opposition and similarity in this relationship.

Baldwin seemed to spend most of his childhood struggling against his father. His father wanted him to preach like he had while Baldwin wanted to write. He grew up in Harlem where he was in the majority and, against his father’s advice, easily befriended white people. When he moved to New Jersey, he encountered an environment much less friendly to Blacks. He became the minority in a segregated town. The poor treatment he received in New Jersey created a bitterness in Baldwin that matched the bitterness that his father had. His father’s bitterness had become his. He also does not act unlike the paranoid schizophrenic that his father was when he displayed some of his father’s violence at yet another restaurant’s refusal to serve him because he was Black.

In the first few sentences of the essay, Baldwin notes that his sister was born on the same day that his father died and that his father was buried on Baldwin’s birthday. Both of these events suggest a rebirth of sorts and, in a way, the essay ends in a rebirth. At the time of his father’s death, Baldwin has finally come to understand him and realize their similarities. Baldwin’s father has, in effect, been reborn in him.

"The Knife" by Richard Selzer

I don’t believe I’ve ever read a doctor’s account of a surgery. I was surprised that Selzer is so sympathetic to the patient’s position. I would expect a doctor to be comfortable with his tools, but Selzer is as wary of the scalpel as the anesthetized patient on the table. Unlike H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, Selzer fears the power of the knife and the submission that it effects.

Selzer explores the different roles that a doctor can play: “I must confess that the priestliness of my profession has ever been impressed on me”; “And if the surgeon is like a poet, then the scars you have made on countless bodies are like the verses into the fashioning of which you have poured your soul”; “But mostly you are a traveler in in a dangerous country, advancing into the moist and jungly cleft your hands have made.”

That last description intrigues me the most; it fits with Selzer’s wariness of the scalpel. Not only does the doctor fear his tool, but the body that he meant to heal. When our bodies fail us, they can feel foreign, treacherous. We expect doctors to make sense of the treachery, reclaim our bodies for us. But Selzer seems to fear our insides as much as we do.

“The Passover Guest” by Sholom Aleichem

In “The Passover Guest,” Aleichem explores the importance of storytelling. The narrator “was wild with curiosity to see the guest who didn’t understand Yiddish, and who talked with a’s” and he “puffed up with pride as [he] follow[ed] my father and his guest to [his] house, and feel how all [his] comrades envy [him].” At dinner, the guest impresses the entire family by simply stating his name, Ayak Bakar Gashal Damas Hanoch Vassam Za’an Chafaf Tatzatz. A man who possesses such a long last name must be a man of great distinction. The stranger supports the family’s suspicions by telling stories of a land of great wealth and beauty from where this man supposedly came.

Had I been in this family’s position, I would have been skeptical if someone told me of a land where houses are made of gold and silver and jewels line the streets. But to this family, these stories coupled with the stranger’s mystery become more important than reality. When the stranger reveals his true identity by robbing the family, the boy narrator mourns the loss of his dreams of the magical place that the stranger described more than he regrets the loss of his parents’ material wealth.

The land that the stranger describes sounds very similar to one of the places Candide and Cacambo travel to in Voltaire’s Candide. Coincidence?

‘The Polysyllabic Spree’ by Nick Hornby

There really isn’t much to say about this collection of critical essays other than I recommend it. I realize that one must be of a certain ilk to enjoy reading a book about a man reading books, but Hornby’s ordinary (in the best sense possible), conversational voice makes these essays very accessible. He offers intelligent critiques of the books he reads, but Hornby remains cognizant, as he does in his novels, that he is writing to his readers and not above them.

In these essays, Hornby is speaking for everyone who struggles with books, in that you have a library somewhere full of books you’ve been meaning to read, books you know you’ll never read, and yet you spend hundreds of dollars a year buying more books that you know you’ll never read but you keep meaning to. He’ll expound on the brilliance of Charles Dickens and spend a month happily reading David Copperfield, but he’ll also abandon a novel for a soccer game. Hornby tackles some fundamental questions: why books? why do we read? why do people write them? what’s the bloody point?

If you are unaware that the title of the collection is a reference, well, it is. The Polyphonic Spree is a very large group of musicians who dress in colorful robes and play hard-to-classify music. Chamber pop would probably be the closest genre I can think of. Elizabeth tells me that it’s an “ambient orchestral experience.” I tell you this so that, in case you go out and read Mr. Hornby’s essays, you will be able to appreciate the humor of his Spree references. See? I take care of you.

“The Fourth State of Matter” by JoAnn Beard

“The face of love.”

So love is someone who is completely and utterly dependent upon you? Someone whose wet blankets you change several times daily and expects a reward for wetting them. Someone who needs you to carry her up the stairs. Someone who wakes you three times during the night to use the bathroom. Someone who never leaves, who you won’t let leave, and always loves you.

JoAnn’s almost ex-husband doesn’t seem much unlike the collie in this essay. He persistently calls JoAnn, expecting her to reaffirm his decision to leave her, to tell him where something is, or how to perform some task. The difference between the husband and the collie? The collie still loves JoAnn and will never leave her. Which is probably why JoAnn hesitates to put the collie to sleep. Besides the fact that she loves the collie and will miss the dog when she is gone, blah blah blah love-your-pet-cakes.

But JoAnn also has a crush on….her boss. I can’t remember his name. And ultimately he is a distant figure, not really needing JoAnn for anything. They work together, but he is not totally dependent upon her. JoAnn’s friend, whom she seems to love in a platonic way, is also more self-sufficient than JoAnn. So perhaps her husband conditioned her to think of the dog’s dependency upon her as love (in fact, I believe Beard mentions that her husband called the dog’s look “the face of love”) because it mimics his dependency on her.

All that stuff about the office shooting….yeah, I’m not certain what to do with that. Or “the fourth state of matter” thing.

"Snow" by Ann Beattie

In both of the short stories by Ann Beattie that I have read—this one and “Janus”—Beattie uses the environment to delicately define a relationship. In “Snow” the lovers’ conflicting memories of a snowy winter reflect their incompatibility.

The woman remembers the life and magic behind everything surrounding her: “…finding some of the house’s secrets, like wallpaper underneath wallpaper,” “When we painted the walls yellow, I thought of the bits of grape that remained underneath and imagined the wine popping through, the way some plants can tenaciously push through anything,” “you, in the white towel turban, like a crazy king of snow.”

The man, however, remembers only the coldness and the darkness, as it creeps into the environment and into their relationship: “You remember that the cold settled in stages, that a small curve of light was shaved from the moon night after night, until you were no longer surprised the sky was black….”

The few paragraphs that compose this story are quite poetic. Beattie seems to have mastered the skin-and-bones, pared-down writing style that we in the West seem to value.

“Becoming What We’re Called” by Alice Walker

Probably the aspect of the English language that bothers me the most is the fact that one word is used for both singular and plural second person. This lack of distinction has spawned several irritating alternative expressions for the plural “you,” “y’all” being the one that particularly frosts my cookies. “You guys” seems to be phrase that irks Alice Walker.

Even though I have heard many arguments against using “guys” as a neutral term for both men and women, I’ve never heard the argument articulated quite as beautifully as Walker does in this essay. The etymology that Walker provides of the word “guy” as both a noun and a verb is

It would seem from the dictionary that the verb “guy” is another word for “guide,” or “control”: bearing a very real resemblance to “husband.” It means “to steady, stay, or direct by means of a guy, from the French guying.” The noun means “a boy or man; fellow; chap.” It means “a person whose appearance or dress is odd.” Again, as a verb, “guy” can mean “to tease; to ridicule.” And this last is how I feel it [sic] when the word is used by men referring to women, and by women referring to themselves. I see in its use some women’s obsequious need to be accepted at any cost, even at the cost of erasing their own femaleness, and that of other women. Isn’t it at least ironic that after so many years of struggle for women’s liberation, women should end up calling themselves this?

I understand her position and I’m with Walker until she makes this statement: “I don’t respect ‘guys’ enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name.” I think she just means “guys” that fit her definition of “guy,” i.e. controlling, etc., but she sounds a little dismissive of the male sex as a whole. I’m sure there are one or two worthwhile chaps out there.

So, is “guys” preferable to “girls”? Okay, yes, “guys” erases women’s femaleness, but it doesn’t sound as condescending. Though, I suppose, Walker would disagree with that.

"Fleur" by Louise Erdrich

Fleur seems to be some totem for the power of women. Local folklore credits Fleur with the death of two men—she seems to absorb the power of men to keep living. She becomes a somewhat androgynous figure. The narrator describes her as:

Her cheeks were wide and flat, her hands large, chapped, muscular. Fleur’s shoulders were were broad as beams, her hips fishlike, slippery, narrow. An old green dress clung to her waist, worn thin where she sat. Her braids were thick like the tails of animals, and swung against her when she moved, deliberately, slowly in her work, held in and half-tamed, but only half.

Her appearance seems somewhat masculine, with her large muscular hands, narrow hips, and her braids that make the narrator consider her only “half-tamed.” Fleur is also rumored to keep “the finger of a child in her pocket and a powder of unborn rabbits in a leather thong around her neck,” which suggests a certain disrespect for the feminine “creative” power. However, Fleur is a very gentle, maternal figure toward the narrator. The narrator remembers she “was lifted, soothed, cradled in a woman’s arms, and rocked so quiet that [she] kept [her] eyes shut while Fleur rolled [her] into a closet of grimy ledgers, oiled paper, balls of string, and thick files that fit beneath me like a mattress.” And, at the end of the story, Fleur has a child.

Fleur seems like a woman warrior of sorts. She wrestles power from the men with whom she plays poker and when they try to take their money back, she, presumably, kills them. These incidents cause me to wonder about the two times that she escaped death by drowning. Did the other men that she killed have similar nefarious intentions as the poker players? After their deaths, Fleur creates a life for herself outside of the mainstream. And the narrator, who once considered herself invisible, is finally seen.

"The Dancing Party" by Mary Gordon

In this story, Mary Gordon tries to accomplish something similar to what Virginia Woolf does in “Kew Gardens”, shifting perspective from character to character. Woolf’s snail facilitates this narrative style more elegantly than Gordon manages. The transitions from character to character can be clunky at times.

Another aspect that became rather awkward was the lack of proper names. When the wife from the beginning of the story returned and Gordon referred to her as “the angry wife” it took me a moment to figure out who she was. Gordon’s use of appositives was useful in that it very clearly defined the female characters in relationship to the men in the lives. For the most part at least. She probably could have come up with better ones for the hostess and the widow’s friend. “The hostess’ daughter” was okay, however, because she is determined not to become “susceptible” to men the way that her mother, and her mother’s peers, have.

However, all of the women in this piece have become susceptible to men in some way or another. The angry wife is caught up in her husband’s moods, concerned that his demeanor will reflect badly upon her. The hostess is “young….beautiful, she needs a man in her bed.” The mother without a husband is subject to her lover’s needs—he refuses to leave his wife, so she is forced to raise their child by herself. The hostess’ daughter considers marrying a rich man because she likes to have nice things. The scientist has come to the party alone because her lover does not like to dance. The widow says that she came from a time in which women were told to serve men. The widow’s friend is on her fifth husband so that she will not have to be alone.

At one point in the story, all of the women are dancing together, but eventually they break their circle to include the men. They seem to feel guilty for some reason. Is Gordon offering this guilt as a reason for women making themselves “susceptible” to men?

“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” by Bharati Mukherjee

“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” seems to be Mukherjee’s manifesto of sorts, in that in this essay she states the goal of her writing:

In other words, my literary agenda begins by acknowledging that America has transformed me. It does not end until I show how I (and the hundreds of thousands like me) have transformed America.

She strives to give an inner life to those normally overlooked—“call them Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese”—“[her] duty is to give voice to continents, but also to redefine the nature of American and what makes an American.”

Mukherjee also states that she considers herself an “American writer, in the American mainstream, trying to expand it,” despite the fact that she was born in India, married and lived in Canada before finally moving to America in 1983. According to Nina Baym, Mukherjee’s interest in using her writing to define “American” and “the American Experience” places her firmly within the American literature tradition. Baym notes in her critical essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” that oftentimes texts that detail the immigrant or minority experience are excluded from the canon because they do not describe the true “American” experience. Mukherjee specifically wants to challenge this notion.

I found this statement interesting: “Wherever I travel in the (very) Old World, I find “Americans” in the making, whether or not they ever make it to these shores.” What makes a person, who has never seen the United States, an American in the making? Mukherjee continues, “I see them as dreamers and conquerors, not afraid of transforming themselves, not afraid of abandoning some of their principles along the way,” and then mentions her main character from Jasmine, who fits that description. But why these characteristics? And why does Mukherjee define them as specifically American?

‘Life and Death of Harriett Frean’ by May Sinclair (1922)

Though certain parts of this very short novel felt a little rushed, I very much enjoyed Sinclair’s work. I made the mistake of attempting to read the introduction first and in the less-than-a-page that I read Jean Radford managed to spoil the plots of both Harriett Frean and The Mint— I mean, The Mill on the Floss. Thanks a lot, Jean. You big dope. Francine Prose’s introduction is better than yours anyway.

Well, really there isn’t much to give away about the plot of Harriett Frean because the title pretty much says it all. Sinclair details the life and death of Harriett Frean, a woman who never really manages to stop being a girl. Harriett idolized her parents, who trained her to always “behave beautifully,” primarily through self-sacrifice.

His arm tightened, drawing her closer. And the kind, secret voice went on. “Forget ugly things. Understand, Hatty, nothing is forbidden. We don’t forbid, because we trust you to do what we wish. To behave beautifully….”

Her father’s instruction to “Forget ugly things” creates, in effect, a separate, ideal world for Harriett and her parents. After her father’s mild scolding, it was “always the red campion she remembered” about Black Lane and not the scary man that she saw. Harriett dislikes her friends, even Priscilla, intruding upon her and her parents’ domain and when away from her parents, like when she visits Robin and Priscilla, she must face ugly behavior to which she is unaccustomed.

After her parents die, Harriett lacks enough of a self-identity to carry on in any semblance of a normal way of life for a woman her age. She continues to try to read the material that she read with her parents, but finds herself not intelligent enough to understand it. She continues to hold on to her father’s identity, which was not even that significant despite some modest success from authoring a book. Even into the late years of her life, she proudly declares that, “My father was Hilton Frean.”

And with the death of her parents her ideal world is lost. She must finally face the realities of her choices in life. She felt a great sense of having behaved beautifully by insisting that Robin marry Priscilla and not her, but she finally recognizes that her insistence made Priscilla’s, Robin’s and Beatrice’s lives difficult. She must also face realities about her parents—that her mother had sacrificed, just as Harriett thought that she herself had done, for Harriett and denied herself things that would have made her happy and that would have let her live longer. And her father, a seemingly perfect Victorian gentlemen, led his good friend to financial ruin.

On the last page of the novel, Harriett speaks her final word, “Mamma,” which was also the first word of the story. Harriett has come full circle and hasn’t gone anywhere. Like the cat in the nursery rhyme that she heard as a child, and that she repeats on her deathbed—”Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been? / I’ve been to London, to see the Queen. / Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there? / I caught a little mouse under the chair.”—Harriet, who had great expectations for her life, ultimately does not do much.

The relationships in this book are rather disturbing. Harriett’s relationships with her mother and father seem to have an undercurrent of sexuality to them.

Mamma would come in carrying the lighted candle. Her face shone white between her long, hanging curls. She would stoop over the cot and lift Harriett up, and her face would be hidden in curls. That was the kiss-me-to-sleep kiss. And when she had gone Harriett lay still again, waiting. Presently Papa would come in, large and dark in the firelight. He stooped and she leapt up into his arms. That was the kiss-me-awake kiss; it was their secret. Then they played. Papa was the Pussycat and she was the little mouse in her hole under the bed-clothes. They played till Papa said, “No more!” and tucked the blankets tight in.

“Now you’re kissing like Mamma—”

I mean, ewww! Outside of those relationships, Harriett doesn’t seem to love anyone. Even Priscilla and Robin. Hell, she doesn’t even think God and Jesus are as beautiful as her mother. Conclusion? Functional families are creepy.

In this novel, Sinclair seems to be illustrating the consequences of subscribing too fully to the ideals of self-sacrifice and renunciation. The Freans sacrifice and renounce so much that it leads to repression and that repression builds inside of them like the cancer that kills Harriett and her mother.

I found Sinclair’s writing style interesting. It seemed to develop as Harriett got older. In the beginning chapters, the story was more episodic. But some of the episodes weren’t even long enough for me to consider them episodes. Perhaps vignettes? Sometimes she works with just images. She bounces from one incident to the next, never lingering very long on one subject. Sinclair also used more sentence fragments, beginning sentences with verbs and getting directly to the point. As Harriet gets older, the scenes feel less like vignettes and they last longer, the incidents more fully described. A great shift in tone occurs after Harriett rejects Robin:

Towards spring Harriett showed signs of depression, and they took her to the south of France and to Bordighera and Rome. In Rome she recovered. Rome was one of those places you ought to see; she had always been anxious to do the right thing. In the little Pension in the Via Babuino she had a sense of her own importance and the importance of her father and mother. They were Mr. and Mrs. Hilton Frean, and Miss Harriett Frean, seeing Rome.

Instead of inhabiting Harriett, Sinclair becomes an objective, almost clinically observant narrator.

I’m curious what the significance of Harriett’s life was to May Sinclair, as she did not marry just as Harriett.

"The Fiddler of the Reels" by Thomas Hardy

Car’line seems to be torn between sexual passion and domestic stability in this story. The description of the emotions that Car’line’s feels when Mop, er, plays his fiddle is rather sexual: “[Ned] could not play the fiddle so as to draw your soul out of your body like a spider’s thread…till you felt as limp as withywind and yearned for something to cling to.” Ned is a stable, respected man who is a good prospect for a husband, but he does not create the sexual stirrings in Car’line that Mop does. But Mop is content to create those feelings in Car’line, use her, and then discard her, leaving her with a child. The final scene, when Mop is playing the reels, is a bit of a stand off between Car’line and Mop. Mop is trying to assert his sexual power over Car’line, while Car’line tries to deny that power, to reclaim some dignity from their previous encounter. Mop completely sublimates her and she falls to the floor weeping.

Car’line turns to Ned for stability after Mop leaves her with a child. But Car’line must also sublimate herself to Ned. If I had my copy of the story handy I would quote a sentence that describes Car’line as a less-fancy teapot that makes tea better than a beautiful one. Basically, Car’line functions well as a wife for Ned, but there doesn’t seem to be much admiration between them. I think that Ned married Car’line as a way of getting back at Mop for stealing his fiancée. By marrying her and adopting Mop’s illegitimate child, Ned assumes Mop’s life just as he thought that Mop had assumed his. When Mop kidnaps the child, Ned goes to pieces, but he states that he isn’t much concerned about Car’line even though she cannot stop sobbing. Ned is upset because Mop has once again claimed something that Ned considered his. The child’s name isn’t mentioned until after she is kidnapped, suggesting that the child only became so important to Ned once Mop had her.

"In the Life" by Becky Bertha

A story about an elderly, Black lesbian. One doesn’t stumble upon those too often. Though, unfortunately, the elderly lesbian isn’t living at Mertins Dyke Home.

This story….is quite ordinary. And I think that might be Birtha’s intention. She depicts a rather unordinary relationship in a very ordinary way. The reader comes to find that being “in the life” is not very different from being not in the life. When Max’s partner asks her to describe what being in the life was like when homosexuality was less accepted, Jinx struggles to think of any stories to tell. She does finally think of something, but it is a rather generic account. The homosexual couple in her story could have been a heterosexual couple.

Birtha’s use of a lesbian couple in which one woman is more “masculine” and the other more “feminine” accentuates this ordinariness. While the narrator did tend to wear slacks and her lover wear dresses, Birtha included less stereotypical characteristics that made the character more “masculine” than Grace, her love of watching Grace, for example.

“She Unnames Them” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Even though Le Guin gets a little cute at times, e.g. "Well, goodbye, dear. I hope the garden key turns up," I found Le Guin’s new conclusion to Adam and Eve’s relationship interesting.

Judging by the descriptions of the other short stories in the collection in which this story was published, the importance of Eve unnaming the animals, at least for Le Guin, is enabling her to become closer to nature and ultimately forsake her domesticity. However, there is also the gesture of woman reclaiming language. According to one of the creation stories (the one generally favored), man was created first, then the animals, and then woman. Man was allowed to name the animals, thus granting man a power of language that woman was not given. By unnaming the animals in this story, Eve seems to reclaim that power in a way. Eve notes:

None were left now to unname, and yet how close I felt to them when I saw one of them swim or fly or trot or crawl across my way or over my skin, or stalk me in the night, or go along beside me for a while in the day. They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their fear of me became one same fear. And the attraction that many of us felt, the desire to feel or rub or caress one another’s scales or skin or feathers or fur, taste one another’s blood or flesh, keep one another warm—that attraction was now all one with the fear, and the hunter could not be told from the hunted, nor the eater from the food.

Man created language and that language created a hierarchy, a separation between humans and animals, animals and other animals.

Between the humans, "talk was getting [them] nowhere." And, though it isn’t made explicitly clear in this story (though a hierarchy in the animal realm is obvious), language creates a hierarchy between men and women. By disassembling Adam’s language and joining the animals, Eve effectively renounces the hierarchy of the human realm and joins her newly created, classless society.

"Other Lives" by Francine Prose

I thought that Prose did a surprisingly excellent job of developing the four main characters in such a short story that is mostly anecdotal. And, even though the four main characters are adults, I liked the way that Prose infused all of them with a child-like wonder. In fact, the story itself has a very magical quality to it.

I particularly liked this passage about Claire’s crush on Raymond:

Claire has a crush on Raymond; at least that’s what she thinks it is. It’s not especially intense or very troublesome; it’s been going on a long time and she doesn’t expect it to change. If anything did change, it would probably disappear…She just likes him, that’s all. When it’s Raymond coming to dinner, she cooks and dresses with a little more care than she otherwise might, and spends the day remembering things to tell him which she promptly forgets.

Of the adults, Joey seems the most down-to-earth, the least interested in magical things. He is more practical, knowing the real names of things instead of inventing new constellations as Raymond does. Joey gets the children ready for bed while Dottie, Raymond and Claire ruminate on frivolous things. This fact might explain Claire’s attraction to Raymond, whose anecdote about Miranda’s illness and his night on the beach captures his sense of wonder.

I also particularly liked the idea of Claire saving her story about discovering the busted tomatoes and the shampoo bottle for Raymond, “so it wouldn’t be just a story she told before.” There is something special about assembling the language to recount an event for the first time. While it may not be as polished as the third or fourth time one tells the story, it has….well, more of a magical quality.

"Lust" by Susan Minot

This story was a nice change from the other short stories that I’ve been reading. Instead of a more traditional, linear narrative style, Minot uses a series of vignettes. This minimalistic style seems to strengthen the narrator’s voice. The secondary characters hardly even become secondary. The narrator names some of the boys with whom she had sexual encounters, but oftentimes the reader doesn’t know which boy is making the advances that the narrator is recounting. The vignettes also seem appropriate for the subject matter. Like the narrator describes, lust overcomes her and then leaves her as suddenly as the vignette ends.

In this story Minot creates an interesting discussion of the imbalance of power between males and females in regards to sex. Boys’ sexual desire completely dominates the narrator:

“Come here,” he says on the porch.
I go over to the hammock and he takes my wrist with two fingers.
He kisses my palm then directs my hand to his fly.
So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.
You wait till they come to you. With half fright, half swagger, they stand one step down. They dare to touch the button on your coat then lose their nerve and quickly drop their hand so you— you’d do anything for them. You touch their cheek.
It starts this way:
You stare into their eyes. They flash like all the stars are out. They look at you seriously, their eyes at a low burn and their hands no matter what starting off shy and with such a gentle touch that they only thing you can do is take that tenderness and let yourself be swept away. When, with one attentive finger they tuck the hair behind your ear, you—
You do everything they want.

And girls are compelled by other girls as well as boys to acquiesce to that desire:

I thought the worst thing anyone could call you was a cock-teaser. So, if you flirted, you had to be prepared to go through with it.

Minot uses this odd intermingling of first and second person. Sometimes she speaks very specifically of her own experiences, using “I,” and other times she seems to be speaking for women in general and uses “you,” which suggests a sense of disconnection from her own experiences. (Some of the vignettes told in first person will often drift into more of a third person perspective, insinuating a feeling of disconnection: “…then came back to me, a body waiting on the rug.”) And at yet other times she uses a first person “we” to speak of herself as a member of womankind, which suggests she owns those experiences. But she still has sentences like, “It’s different for girls.” She seems to expect her audience to be female, but will remind herself at times that males may be reading too and need more explanation.

(I feel like I should apologize for using “boy” and “girl” in this post. I’m using the language that Minot uses, and her characters are supposed to be in high school, but I still feel weird.)

“The Slaves in New York” by Tama Janowitz

I was not particularly impressed by this story. I mean, it was okay, but not great.

Janowitz seemed to be connecting the powerlessness that the rent prices and unavailability of living space in New York City cause with the powerlessness that women used to experience in daily life. (Before they were married, they were slaves to their father and after they were slaves to their husband.) An interesting concept but not well executed. Using a woman as the main character made the plot feel a little tired and clichéed. Had a man been the main character and been put into this powerless position I would have been more interested. Mikell was in the same situation as Eleanor, but the reader did not see Mikell’s day-to-day experiences. One cannot know if Mikell was forced into a traditional housewife role as Eleanor was to keep his living space with Millie. (Somehow, I doubt it.) Millie, like Stash, simply kept Mikell on a short leash and didn’t allow him to associate with other women.

The “pinch me” anecdote….Bah!

The ending felt heavy-handed, with Eleanor telling her friend that she would become a slave to Bruce if she moved to New York to live with him. It was as if Janowitz didn’t trust her readers to figure out the significance of the title themselves.

"The Abortion" by Alice Walker

Wow, this was not an encouraging short story to read after “Giving Birth”. After reading both stories in one night, I’m considering parting ways with my uterus.

“The Abortion,” as the title might indicate, emphasizes the importance of a woman’s ability to decide when to have children, but it also suggests that the right to have an abortion is only a small part of a woman having sexual freedom. Imani’s reaction to her first abortion was a feeling of freedom:

she frequently remembered [her first abortion] as wonderful, bearing as it had all the marks of a supreme coming of age and a seizing of the direction of her own life, as well as a comprehension of existence that never left her: that life—what one saw about one and called Life—was not a facade.

After her second abortion she realizes “that the only way she could claim herself, feel herself distinct from [her husband and child], was by doing something painful, self-defining but self-destructive.” And that she was “Still not in control of her sensuality, and only through violence and with money (for the flight, for the operation itself) in control of her body.” The second abortion begins her self-definition, which she continues by telling her husband that either he started sleeping by himself or had a vasectomy. After he had the vasectomy, she still ended up leaving him, completing her self-definition.

"Giving Birth" by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s interest in language and connecting the creation of language (and meaning) with the “creative” process of giving birth was interesting. But Atwood also notes that often language is tricky, it fails us:

The word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape, but there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman.

By the way, that sentence (in reference to a woman about to give birth who did not want to have a baby) is HEAVY. Perhaps as language can fail us, so does giving birth fail for some women, like the unnamed woman from the car. Connecting language and childbirth gives language a distinctly feminine quality, which I thought was interesting because mainly I’ve noticed that language was constructed to favor masculine qualities.

You know, I never did fully grasp the unnamed woman’s role in the story. She seemed to be Jeannie’s antithesis in the car—she was alone and did not want to have this child while Jeannie had her husband (I think) and wanted to have her baby. However, Jeannie reveals her true motivations for getting pregnant later in the story: she is having a baby so that she will no longer be left out of some secret club of womanhood who understands something she does not. However, this motivation does not associate nor disassociate her from the unnamed woman in any way. Maybe the unnamed woman was simply some universal mother figure? I don’t know! She was the only part of the story that I didn’t understand.

Jeannie’s recounting of her memory of the pain she felt during labor fading reminded me of The Bell Jar:

Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a twilight sleep.

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless, and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

But Atwood suggests that women begin to forget the pain naturally. That seems like a terrible trick for a woman’s body to play on her.

"Souvenir" by Jayne Ann Phillips

For some reason this story made me sad. Inexplicably, deeply sad, to quote an awesome movie. I think it made me sad because of Kate’s struggle with her personal beliefs and her desire to make her mother happy and “settle down into normal American womanhood.” I realize that I’m not that old and haven’t quite hit those years in my life when I’m supposed to settle into “normal American womanhood” but I’m not sure that settling will ever come. The kids issue is my greatest concern. As an only child, if I don’t spawn then my mother and father will never have any grandchildren and I stop the genetic line from continuing. For some reason, that fact feels like a giant responsibility. Especially since I don’t see myself having children. Or being a parent for that matter.

Squicky feelings about pregnancy and breastfeeding aside, I just don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling at the prospect of being a parent. Kids make me uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do or to say to them. And the risk factors involved are a bit overwhelming. What if I have a really rotten kid who turns out to be some psycho who forms a cult that eats raw animal flesh and watches The Swan and they are driven to the point of madness that they start slaughtering women whose figures don’t resemble Barbie’s? Or what if I turn out to be a rotten parent and scar some poor, unsuspecting person for the rest of her life so that she has to listen constantly to Captain & Tennille albums to function normally? (My overreactions to the possibility are getting worse as I get older.)

But enough about my freakish tendencies. I was underwhelmed by the story. The characters felt underdeveloped to me as did the central conflict, which was rather clichéed already. The mother is really the heart of the story, but her characterization seemed a little….flimsy. The story details the different relationships that Kate and Robert have with their mother. After the death of their father, Kate has provided more of an emotional support for her mother, sending her valentines every year. Robert, on the other hand, has assumed the stereotypical role of “the man of the family” and has taken charge of finances and medical care and the like. Both seek their mother’s approval of their life choices. The reason I feel the mother deserved more character development is because the conclusion of the story seems to stress children’s need for the steadfastness of their parents. As Kate struggles with telling her mother about her poor condition, her mother actually offers the comfort and tells her daughter, “‘I know all about it,’ her mother said, ‘I know what you haven’t told me.’”

"Royal Beatings" by Alice Munro

“I’m not an intellectual writer. I’m very, very excited by what you might call the surface of life, and it must be that this seems to me very meaningful in a way I can’t analyze or describe. . . . It seems to me very important to be able to get at the exact tone or texture of how things are.”
—Alice Munro in an interview with Graeme Gibson

Munro has an ability that I have always admired, that of being able to articulate and describe experiences commonplace to everyday life in a way that gives the reader a new awareness of those experiences.

I thought Munro struck a nice balance in this story. She didn’t completely demonize Flo nor Rose’s father. She story begins with Flo scolding Rose harshly, which caused me to expect that Flo would be characterized as harsh throughout. And Flo’s reaction to the anecdote of Rose’s mother’s death rather supports that thought. But Munro makes clear the admiration that Rose has for her stepmother and the kindness and consideration that Flo can show Rose. Constrastly, Rose’s father seems a quiet, solitary, gentle type, crafting fine furniture for people but charging them very little. One doesn’t expect a man who scribbles a quotation from Spinoza to explode the way that her father does.

I found Munro’s observations about Rose’s emotional state after her beating interesting.

Suppose she dies now? Suppose she commits suicide? Suppose she runs away? Any of those things would be appropriate. It is only a matter of choosing, of figuring out the way. She floats in her superior state as if kindly drugged.


Flo comes into the room without knocking, but with a hesitation that shows it might have occurred to her. She brings a jar of cold cream. Rose is hanging onto advantage as long as she can, lying face down on the bed, refusing to acknowledge or answer.

This suggestion that a beating actually empowers the victim in some small way was something I hadn’t really considered previously.

"Holding Things Together" by Anne Tyler

Could the narrator be more annoying?

But anyway, the conflict in this story was interesting. Both Lucy and Alfred struggle with social expectations. Alfred cuts a rather disappointing figure of a man, according to Lucy, even down to his clothing. He always appears sad, incompetent, and, well, impotent. He doesn’t have the skills that men should have, at least that Lucy expects men to have, like being able to fix the car, balance the checkbook and mow the lawn. Alfred feels like a failure for not meeting Lucy’s expectations and Lucy resents him for not meeting them. Lucy enjoys having men take control of problems, rescue her from bad situations. She becomes obsessed with maintaining her car because when she drives into Exxon and turns her vehicle over to Joel and Victor she finally feels taken care of and, surprisingly, womanly.

The argument between Lucy and Alfred that becomes the climax of the story was interesting because it reflects a common occurrence: women not allowing or teaching their spouses to perform households tasks because they don’t think they will do them correctly. Alfred seems willing, if not eager, to help Lucy in household chores, but Lucy, in her perfectionism, doesn’t allow Alfred or try to teach him how to help her. Alfred understands this tendency as Lucy wanting to be in control, while Lucy resents Alfred for not taking control.

“Saint Chola” by K. Kvashay-Boyle

I’ve always been fascinated with hijab, particularly hijab in the United States. To most Americans, who are mostly Christian, the hijab seems foreign and strange. Most Christians don’t seem to remember that one of the significant figures of their religion is almost always pictured in hijab: the Virgin Mary. Even though Christian women are not expected to wear hijab to preserve their modesty as Muslim women are, there must be some remnant of that mentality in Christianity. Because Mary—the Christian epitome of virtue, chastity and modesty—remains depicted with her hair covered, Christians must still understand the philosophy of hijab.

This story addresses a very interesting question: can a feminist wear hijab? Well, obviously, one can, but does doing so betray some crucial tenet of feminism? Many of the American Muslim women that I have known tend to redefine the significance of hijab. Instead of feeling burdened by their veil, these women find it liberating. Veiled, they do not have to worry about being judged for not wearing the hippest clothing or men ogling them. I tend to choose clothes for similar reasons. So am I part of the problem, as some feminists would say, for not embracing my sexuality and submitting to the cultural expectation that women are expected to control men’s desires by not wearing shirts that look like handkerchiefs? I realize that my usual khakis and long-sleeved shirt is quite a bit more liberated-looking than hijab, but if these women find hijab liberating and choose to wear it, what’s wrong with that? Must all women who cannot forsake their religious tenets be excluded from feminism?

I liked this short story. Setting it during the Gulf War and capitalizing on the tension between American culture and Arabs was very effective. Though I’m not sure I quite understand the ending within the context of the rest of the story.