Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oscar Wao ~ First Impressions

So I rarely post about a book when I'm only a few pages in, but there's so much going on in my head regarding the first 33 pages of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that I just need to say talk about it, and isn't that why I have a book blog?

So first off, there's this beginning bit that's not really identified as anything and has Arabic numerals (you know, numbers) at the top of the page, rather than Roman numerals, so it seems to be the beginning of the novel.  And it's this whole big thing about the fuku, a curse brought over by Christophers Columbus (or something) that plagues Dominicans and kind of makes them seem like a bunch of superstitious crazies.  There are several extremely long footnotes that made me groan because, well, I don't like footnotes unless they're explaining something vague and Shakespearean and doing so in three words or less.  But I plow through them and hope that there won't be many more.

And then I turn the page and there's a fancy decoration with a Roman numeral one, and then the page after that has the word "one" in a box, so apparently the novel is starting now.  So I check back and there's definitely nothing to identify that first bit as a prologue or an introduction.  But maybe this means that there won't be any more footnotes (there will be) so I plow on.

And then there's the narrator.  Except for the first line (which begins "Our hero"), it's written in the third person by a narrator who is very much present despite the lack of the "I."  The narrator curses, delivers up Dominican stereotypes, and analyzes Oscar all at once, all while telling Oscar's story.  And I'm just overwhelmed by trying to figure out the purpose of the narrator and if he/she/it will come into being at some point, and trying to work out truth behind the stereotypes (which my Dominican coworker denied familiarity with and was rather offended by), and trying to figure out if I'm even enjoying it.

The narrator also speaks in quite horrific, slangy English peppered with Spanish (most of it vaguely understandable, particularly in context).  This lack of proper grammar is quite off-putting - I like when authors give characters voices and linguistic tics but normally that's interspersed by the calm, correct narrator who acts like white space, relieving the senses.  Being faced with lines like "When they were around he didn't need no Penthouses" (27) around every turn can be quite overwhelming.  There's also an element of modern realism (not sure if I'm misappropriating this term - perhaps I should say present-day realism?) that strikes a rather negative chord, like when girls are described as "fine as shit" and "hot-as-balls" (27).  I don't think it's so much that I take offense (because I accept the equally degrading 19th century equivalents quite readily) as much as possess a general disdain for narratives that are too localized in the present: i.e. the mention of a Playstation in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or the reference to Facebook in Vaclav & Lena.  Perhaps this is because of the inaccessibility of such allusions?  These things (and hopefully these words) will mean nothing to my children and as a result, the literature in which they appear may become inaccessible.  While I'm reading it though, I just experience a sudden distaste, a sense that this doesn't belong in a book.  But perhaps I'm getting too far off-topic and should give this discussion its own post.

Things I definitely like about Oscar Wao without qualification: mentions of places near me.  Oscar grows up in New Jersey (my home state) and, I believe, eventually goes to Rutgers (my alma mater), and it makes me feel special to see these familiar places referenced, like when I saw ads for Jennifer Convertibles as a child or when I saw a Marcketta pizzeria in Italy (yes, the "k" was there).

Has anybody else read Oscar Wao and experienced the same frustrations?  If so, please don't reveal anything about the narrator - I'm sure something is coming in that department and I don't want it spoiled for me!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Middlemarch ~ Halfway Mark

This seems to be the year of really long books for me.  First Anna Karenina, then The Cider House Rules, and now Middlemarch.  Technically, Middlemarch doesn't really get to be on the list, though, as I'm only halfway through.  And to be honest, I could use a break.

Like Anna Karenina, George Eliot's masterpiece Middlmarch is a sweeping narrative, covering the personal, the political, the economic, and some other stuff too.  Also like Anna Karenina, it spends a lot of time talking about poor laborers, yet those are the only characters who we don't get any real insight into, other than in observations of those with money (or, at the very least, status).  As for the characters that we are exposed to... I'd have to say that I don't love them.  Take Mr. Brooke, for example, who is silly, repetitive, and impulsive.  Or his niece Dorothea, who is pretty, zealous, and idealistic.  Or Fred Vincy, who is loosely collected to these people, and is lazy, irritating, and takes advantage of people (though he does feel guilty afterwards).  So many of the characters (and there are a lot of them) seem like little more than caricatures - easily identifiable as having certain traits and never doing anything to surprise their friends or the reader.  They are generally dull, or so flawed that it's impossible to identify with them in any way.  The one exception to this would probably be the Garth family, who have enough troubles and admirable flaws to make me interested in them, though they rarely grace the pages.

The biggest problem for me is probably the sheer number of characters and the way they are described.  There are some characters who only appear for a page or so and who we hear so little about that by the next chapter, their last echos have faded away.  The characters who appear repeatedly, on the other hand, we tend to hear described, in the same ways, over and over.  Unlike, say, Jane Austen, Eliot trusts nothing to her readers.  Four hundred pages in, we hear, again, about Dorothea's "characteristic directness," her "clear and unhesitating" voice, and then, as the scene dictates, of her "melancholy meditation" (410-411).  However, on the following page, Eliot still feels the need to tell us that when Dorothea says, "I am very, very sorry," the words are spoken, "mournfully."  Well, of course they are!  We already have known, from page one, that Dorothea is unfailingly forthright, and from this scene that she is sad - how else could she have spoken those words?

Sometimes, Eliot's words feel wasted, a sensation I did not get from The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner, both of which I loved.  At this point, Middlemarch is disappointing my expectations, although it still has the occasional ability to draw me in (though I can't help but wish there was less to be drawn in to).  I've already taken a brief break from the book to read Vaclav & Lena, and I'm about to take another to finally read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I will definitely finish Middlemarch, but I just don't think I can do it all at once.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Swimmer ~ John Cheever

I've been meaning to read something by John Cheever for a while now, ever since the college bookstore I work at carried a big book of his stories for a class, and I heard a thesis presentation on his work.  However, I never actually picked anything of his up and it was by pure luck that I discovered him in a short fiction anthology that I've had for a few years now.

"The Swimmer" is one of Cheever's most famous short stories and actually originally began as a novel of over 150 pages, though it is now only about eight.  It tells of a man, Ned, who, while at a party, decides to swim home (his house is eight miles away).  He decides to call his route, which is really a network of swimming pools, the Lucinda River, after his wife.  He swims and drinks and chats with the pool's owners, though after awhile, it appears that his life is slipping away.  When he reaches home, his whole life seems to have passed him by over the course of the afternoon.

Cheever creates a wonderfully interesting a character - a man, "far from young," who nevertheless still slides down banisters and embarks on silly excursions.  His thoughts and feelings are perfectly fitted to his journey and character, moving from frivolous optimism to fatigue and confusion and finally to exhaustion and loss and a refusal to give up.  I love how surreal the story is - two apparently different timelines merge into one as Ned literally journeys through life over the span of an afternoon and a few short pages.  I think the story's conciseness really works to its advantage - though I can see how it could be a novel, it seems as though that would make it a little overbearing and even difficult to stomach.  My only complaint would probably be the first paragraph - it doesn't seem to fit the story and starts in a rather trite manner.  Don't be discouraged by that though - "The Swimmer" is worth a read and I will definitely be reading more of Cheever's work.

You can read "The Swimmer" here.  I'd love to hear what you think!

Friday, May 20, 2011

There Be Angst (and a winner!)

First order of business: the winner of Soy Chai Bookshelf's Birthday Giveaway is, of course, Alley from What Red Read.  Congrats, Red!  Send me an e-mail at jlmarck at gmail and I'll order your copy of Never Let Me Go.  I say 'of course,' because she is the only person that entered the contest.  Which brings me to my second order of business...

Ever since posting that giveaway, I've been feeling very unhappy about my blog.  Why don't people want to enter? I ask myself.  Is my blog that bad?  After a year, why do I only have fourteen followers?  Should I give up?  I mean, what's the point if nobody reads what I write?

My husband stopped just short of forbidding me from quitting the blog, which I suppose is appropriate.  However, this in no way made me feel better (nor did the fact that an article on yahoo linked to a blog post of his - congrats Sweets, I'm proud even if I am jealous).  So I was still feeling bad, yet persisting in tweeting giveaway reminders every day, even linking to a new author whose book you could win in the hopes that she would retweet it (she didn't).  Things were bleak.

But then, Ellen at Fat Books & Thin Women posted this.  And she linked to The Reading Ape's recent series (first post here) on the purpose and styles of book blogging.  I had never heard of The Reading Ape before, but I sucked in each post and sat back to ask myself why I started a book blog to begin with.

Of course, I didn't start a book blog to begin with.  My first post was about tea, then there were some book reviews, but also some personal posts, and even some recipes.  It took me a couple of months to realize that what I wanted to do was blog about books.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered that my very long, rather in-depth reviews didn't appeal to many people.  Soon after that, I discovered that the way to get anybody to read my blog was by participating in memes like Top Ten Tuesday.  After awhile I told myself that the only way to get any real number of followers was to hold a giveaway (FLOP).  And now here I am, whining about having an unpopular blog and not even thinking about the books anymore.

So I'm reevaluating.  I'm going to write reviews that are however long I want, make my Top Ten lists because they're fun, and start enjoying books again.  This may even mean I fail at some of my challenges because man do they take the fun and spontaneity out of reading (more on that in a separate post).  I'm also going to start seeking out more bloggers that read the kinds of things that I read (most of the bloggers I follow do not), and maybe become more active on Goodreads.  I'm here to discuss books, first and foremost, not win popularity contests.

After all, like my blog I've always been relatively unpopular.  That was never a reason to not make the most of myself.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vaclav & Lena ~ Haley Tanner

**If you want to win a copy of Vaclav & Lena, leave a comment on this post saying why you want to read it, and hop over to my giveaway post to tell me that you've entered**

I got Vaclav & Lena a couple of weeks ago.  It's an Advanced Reading Copy that Random House was good enough to send to the college bookstore where I work.  As my first ever ARC, I was super-excited to read and review it before the rest of the world got a chance to, and thus decided to put Middlemarch on hold in order to accomplish just that.  According to a seal on the cover, it was supposed to be released on May 31.  When I walked into work on Tuesday, on my way down to the textbook dungeon, I moseyed past the new release table (as is my habit) to see what we'd gotten in since last Thursday, when what to my wondering eyes should appear?  Vaclav and Lena, in all their early release glory.  The literary world has beaten me yet again.  Ah well.

About the book itself: Vaclav & Lena is Haley Tanner's first novel.  It recounts the early lives of two Russian immigrants, Vaclav & Lena, who are thrust together as young children, torn apart a few years later, and finally reunited, as in love with one another as ever.  At times disturbing, Vaclav & Lena is mostly a sweet story about the challenges of immersing oneself into a foreign culture and the various ways that people love.

Tanner attempts, and rather impressively, to take the unfathomable, unspoken language of thought and put it into words, and often words that are unfamiliar to the novel's Russian characters.  Though this can tend to awkwardness, for the most part she pulls it off fairly well:
"Lena looks at a spot on the bathroom floor between her shoes.  She likes this spot.  This spot is ambiguous and she feels a kinship with this spot." (156)
Lena sees this spot on the floor and thinks for pages about how it's just one of so many spots that she has seen, but this one feels special, though she will probably just forget it like all the others.  She tells herself that she will remember every aspect of it - size, shape, color, location - and not let it escape her.  Then she is distracted, and we never hear of the spot again.  I love when authors put those things we think but never discuss down on paper, partially because it's so apt and partially because it makes such a great link between the reader and the characters and other readers and other people, and this is one of those moments.  We've all (or at least I have) obsessed about such minutiae, just to forget it, though we never talk about it because we think we are alone.

My only issue with the novel is probably the narrative voice.  It seems to be omniscient, as well as having aspects of direct and free indirect discourse, which can be a bit jarring, particularly because the characters' stilted English (especially in the earlier half of the novel) sometimes carries over into the narration and sometimes doesn't.  There was also one bit back before Lena knew any English that I thought was flashback until people started speaking English and I realized it was just the narrator telling the story.  This could be a bit distracting at times, but in no way made me want to not read the novel and it got better as the novel went on and the characters knew English better.  It also could have been edited to be a bit clearer since the ARC's were released, so maybe you will never know what I'm talking about.

A couple of lines I really loved (though technically I'm not supposed to quote... I will correct if necessary):

"How is it, Vaclav thinks, that these people, prostitutes, crazy street people, homeless men on the subway, they see sometimes straight to the truth, no matter what?" (269)

"The inside of the house is full of a warm light, like Lena's mom has somehow learned to magically make lightbulbs out of clementines." (280)

Overall, I really enjoyed Vaclav & Lena and look forward to whatever else Tanner chooses to release into the world.

**Don't forget to enter to win a copy of this or any other book that I've reviewed!**

Top Ten Minor Characters

So I'm a day late on this again, but that's life.  I actually started this post a couple of days ago but I've been finding it surprisingly difficult to choose my Top Ten Minor Characters (the topic of this week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish).  I've also been looking at other people's lists and finding some choices that I find odd, which then led me to wonder what a minor character really is.  Is it somebody whose purpose in the overall plot is minimal (in which case I wonder why he/she is there)?  Somebody who's only a mentioned a certain number of times (but does that necessitate a lack of influence?)?  Somebody put Boo Radley on the list, which I found astounding.  Boo Radley is a minor character?  But he's the object of much discussion, a motivator to action, a misunderstood man who can tell us about ourselves, a hero...  Is that minor?  So I have no idea what a minor character is and this is all I've been able to come up with:

1. Ginny Weasley from Harry Potter: Is she really minor?  She appears in all seven books, is this sister of a major character, fights Death Eaters, is possessed by Voldemort, and is Harry's main (though delayed) love interest.  No idea, but I choose her because she's fiery, independent, strong, and patient.
2. Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter: Again, is Luna minor?  She first appears in Order of the Phoenix, but has a significant role there in not only fighting the Death Eaters, but helping drag a damaged Ginny and delirious Ron (major character!) to safety.  The link to her father compels major action on the part of the main character, Harry, who gives an unapproved interview under the very nose of the ministry, and compelling him to pay a visit in the final book that nearly kills him.  Is this minor influence?  I chose Luna because she's dreamy, loyal, open-minded, and just seems like she would be great to have around (and for more than just comedic value).
3. The Troubadour from Gilmore Girls: Okay, this isn't a book but this list was hard for me and I can say for certain that the Troubadour is a minor character.  I chose him because whenever the camera highlights him playing his music, I always shout, "I love him, he's my favorite!", much to my friends' annoyance.

Okay, so this was the worst Top Ten Tuesday at Soy Chai Bookshelf ever.  More like Top Three Wednesday.  What are your favorite minor characters?  And how do you define that term?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Happy Birthday to ME!

Okay, so technically it's not my birthday but it is Soy Chai Bookshelf's birthday*, and that's what really matters in the blog world.  What also matters is that my blog's birthday means presents for you!  That's right, blog-birthdays work differently than people-birthdays and I'm hosting my very first giveaway.  Party!

So here's the deal: one person can win any one book that I've already reviewed on Soy Chai Bookshelf.  Click here for a list!  To enter, you need to post a comment on the review saying why you want to read that book**, and another comment on this post telling me which book you want.  Yes, yes, it's extra work but at least there are no forms to fill out.  Lucky you!

Rules and restrictions:
1) You must live in a country that the Book Depository ships to.  If you're not sure if you do, check the list.
2) You can't win if you know me in real life.  Sorry, but you guys have the gift of my real, live self.  And  if that's not enough, remember how often I bake. :]
3) When I announce the winner, he or she must respond within twenty-four hours, or I will pick another winner.
4) The winner will be chosen one week from today (on May 20, at no specific time), so make sure you get both comments in by then.

That's it!

*It's also my husband's birthday, meaning that even though he can't enter this contest, he can share in the love.  Happy Birthday, Sweets!
**If you already commented on it when I first posted it, you need not comment again.

Top Ten - er - Wednesday

I'm a day late on this but that's okay.  You forgive me, right?  This week's Top Ten Tuesday Wednesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Biggest Jerks in Literature, to go along with the Top Ten Mean Girls list from a few weeks ago.  Just to note, I'm going with "jerks" rather than "out-and-out evil nemeses" with this one.  Voldemort and Acheron Hades are just too easy.

1. Hindley Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights: Everybody thinks that Heathcliff was such a jerk, but as a kid he wasn't really so bad.  It was Hindley stealing (or killing? or laming? I can't remember) his horse, and smacking him around, and pretty much enslaving him that soured Heathcliff.  Pretty jerky things to do.
2. Godfrey Cass from Silas Marner: He secretly marries, ignores his wife and child, and then, years later when he starts feeling guilty, expects Silas Marner to be like oh sure, you can have her back.  After seventeen years, I'm not really that fond of her.  Just another jerk who thinks that money entitles him to behave however he wants.
3. George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice: He's just a bit, fat, lying, abandoning, deflowering jerk.  However, he did get his as he's forced to spend the rest of his life putting up with Lydia.
4. Zacharias Smith from Harry Potter: This kid's just obnoxious.  All he does is argue and complain and question Harry's authority during the DA lessons that Harry teaches.  This kid is why dunce hats and three-legged stools were made.
5. Angel Clare from Tess of the D'Urbervilles: He's all like, "I love you and I don't care that you're a poor little milkmaid, I'm marrying you anyway, and by the way I have this secret, and you have the same secret except it's less offensive because it wasn't your fault?  AWAY WITH YOU, WOMAN."  'Nough said.
6. Maximilian de Winter from Rebecca: He's so wishy washy.  Sometimes he's all, "Oh my pet, let me stroke you," and others he's like, "You're in a dress my other wife wore but that you couldn't have known she wore!  I love her so much, why would you remind me of her?  Shunned!" and then all of a sudden, he's like, "She's nothing, nothing to you, nameless second wife.  I <3 you and always have."  And then the reader's all, "Why didn't you say that from the beginning?!  What a jerk."

Okay, I'm out, and a bit exhausted from the effort.  Looking back at my list, I see that all six jerks I managed to come up with were born of British pens.  Odd.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Quickie

No, not that kind of quickie!  Today, in honor of Short Story Month, I have a nice quick story for you.  "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tells of an angel's descent to Earth and what he finds there.  The phoenix-like angel's thoughts are never revealed, nor is his presence ever really questioned (though it is certainly noticed), but Marquez describes his experiences in such a way that you can't help but empathize with him.  This story is a little unusual in that the time frame is far longer than the average short story and it doesn't really focus on any one character, but glances at many.  However, despite the apparent lack of specific focus and it's extreme shortness, Marquez crafts a story that is complete unto itself.

A short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and journalist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is best-known for two novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (both of which I love and recommend), and his use of magical realism.  In his writing, the strange is not shocking.  For anybody who is interested in his writing but intimidated by the length and density, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," is a great, quick introduction to his style.  You can read it here, and be sure to tell me what you think!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four... and Five

You already know what this is and yes, I'm jumping on Stuck in a Book's bandwagon.  Here it goes!

1. The book I'm currently reading: Middlemarch by Silas Marner.  At times it is engaging and at times it puts me to sleep.  It's very, very long (I'm on page 252 of 889) and there are a lot of characters to confuse me, so there will probably be no reason for me to do this meme again next week.
2. The last book I finished: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  This challenged my notions of the qualities of a good book and was well worth the time and slightly irritating narrative style.
3. The next book I want to read: SO MANY CHOICES.  I'm torn between Room by Emma Donoghue (finally out in paperback!), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (which, as Rutgers graduate with a degree in English lit, I really should have read by now), and The Difference Engine (which I bought on impulse and am super-excited about).  It'll probably be weeks before I can read any of them, so this decision is not exceptionally problematic for me at the moment.
4. The last book I bought: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  I've been semi-interested in this in the past, so when I saw it on sale at a library for fifty cents, I figured I had nothing to lose.  Other than fifty cents that is.
5. The last book I was given: Vegan Yum Yum by Lauren Ulm.  This delicious vegan cookbook was given to me by my lovely friend Robin for my birthday last September.  I'm not sure if that was really the last book given to me as it seems unlikely that I wouldn't get a single book for Christmas but nothing else comes to mind.

Thinking About Short Stories

The following is a severely abridged and altered excerpt of the forward that accompanied my undergraduate thesis, a collection of interconnected short stories:

Writing connected stories is an interesting crossover between writing short stories and writing a novel.  Like with a novel, there needs to be an element that remains consistent throughout.  Yet, as they are separate stories, each piece needs to be one coherent narrative that can stand apart from the others and only needs to contribute to a larger whole in context.  Much like members of a family, each story needs to be both a part and a whole – an individual that contributes to a larger unit.  However, forging these connections makes it impossible to ever set down one story and move onto the next; as each new story is written, all those that came before needed to be checked and changed to allow for the facts revealed in the new story.  In a connected collection, each story is constantly in progress as each has bearing on the others and threatens contradiction.

Even for short story writers who don’t intend to recreate the same character in each story, this seems to be an unacknowledged tendency.  In reading Raymond Carver’s collection Cathedral, I tended to read the succession of male protagonists as being the same man, even though their names and the facts of their situations don’t necessarily match up.  Much as the recognizable voice of J. D. Salinger’s famed character Holden Caulfield is echoed in the collection Nine Stories, I find that authors tend towards similar characters with similar stories.  Writing this type of connected stories is an acknowledgement of that, while having its own practical purposes.  People tend to prefer novels for the escape from real life that they offer: novels provide another world for the reader to return to time after time, thus escaping their own lives.  This is seen even more strongly in the great success of series like Harry Potter and Uglies.  Connected stories acknowledge that preference – they allow the writer to fulfill her own desire to write shorter plots while satisfying the reader with a longer, more contiguous story.

Connected story collections are also practical in that they get books on shelves.  Novels dominate the fiction shelves of bookstores, into which the few collections of short stories available vanish among their lengthier counterparts.  Collections of short stories like Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, which are often read and sold as novels, offer an option for short story writers to sell their writing without being forced to change their form.  A more recent example of this is Elizabeth Strout’s story collection, Olive Kitteridge.  Each story in the collection follows an inhabitant of a small Maine town.  These stories are separated by years and relationships, and sometimes only mention Olive Kitteridge, the title character, in passing.  However, the collection was marketed as a novel and spent weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list among many more traditional extended narratives.  This connection is not exactly conclusive, but suggestive of the power of the word “novel,” and its power in transforming our perceptions of the value of short stories.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Good Man is Hard to Find ~ Flannery O'Connor

"It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust" (678).

"I found out the crime don't matter.  You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it" (687).

The above quotes come from "A Good Man in Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, which is also the title of one of O'Connor's collections of short stories.  Like most short stories that I read, it's hard to say what this one is about.  On the surface, it's about a family (mom, dad, three kids, and "the grandmother") going on a vacation to Florida.  However, there's much less about their vacation than there is about their family dynamic, the shortage of good men in the world, and the nature of punishment.  For the first 95% of the story, the narrative follows the grandmother the most closely, though without quite getting into her head.  This is a lady who has things to say and by God, she's going to say them, no matter how little her family wants to listen.  Her family is a source of much disgust for me, as they are a bunch of ungrateful little snots with horrific car-riding habits (they pass a baby around while driving and there's not a seatbelt to be seen).  Though you can see why the family doesn't want to hear from Grandma, it's even more obvious why she feels the need to say everything she does: there is an obvious breakdown in the traditional family structure: the children wield more power than anybody and the matriarch commands the least respect.  The narrative is satisfying stark and straightforward, doing away with superfluous description to get to the heart of the matter.

From here on out, there are going to be some spoilers, so I recommend you go read the thing and then come back for the discussion.  Unless you're lazy and don't care about being spoiled, in which case, read on.

The story held few surprises for me.  From the moment that the car flipped over, or maybe even from when the cat escaped his basket, I knew that the Misfit would show up.  With such a simple, straightforward style, it's unlikely that O'Connor would include even the slightest mention of such a character without that mention either being there to further the story or having him actually appear.  The Misfit does both.  His decision to murder the family, including the grandmother, came as no surprise either.  This seems obvious, as he was initially introduced as a murderer, but there are moments when it seems like he will spare the family, like the grandmother will talk him out of killing them or at least herself.  Just the fact of his murdering every character we've gotten to know up until now seems unlikely, but the knowledge of it settled over me even before the Misfit's henchmen lead Bailey and John Wesley into the woods.

The more I reread the Misfit's words, the more I recognize the underlying religious rhetoric.  This is also unsurprising, as O'Connor herself was devoutly Roman Catholic.  It doesn't stare you in the face though, and could probably be overlooked (as I initially overlooked it), despite the brief mention of Jesus raising the dead and the capital H's peppering his speech.  It can get a little lost in the way the Misfit speaks: never seeming to respond directly to what is said and seemingly wandering with his words.  However, I find an implication that behavior should be directly correlated to punishment, and it's the Misfit lack of concrete knowledge of God's existence that allows him to behave as he does:
"If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him" (688).
The punishment (God's rather than man's) informs the behavior, and it is only a constant knowledge and fear of God that lets there be any good people in the world at all.  Perhaps then (and this is taking it a little beyond the text, though still what I think O'Connor is saying, not myself) it's because there is no God or we have forgotten God that good men are so hard to find.

I might be turning this into a bit more of a religious lesson than was intended or than I generally like, but it doesn't really bother me and seems to grow out of O'Connor's own words.  What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this story.  I have yet to decide if I really like it, but it's been following me around since I read it.

*I read the story in and drew the page number for the quotes from The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia.  You can read it here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Happy Short Story Month!

I know I'm a few days late on this, but apparently it's Short Story Month!  I had no idea that this even existed, though I probably should have guessed as there are months and days for pretty much everything (I once asked my mom, around Mother's Day, why there isn't a "Kid's Day"; she told me that every day is kid's day).  I'm not sure if there is any sort of official way to celebrate short stories, but I assume that reading them and talking about them should probably do the trick.  This comes at a most convenient time, as I have recently embarked on a 900-page novel and could use the occasional break from it (and the kick in the butt to keep blogging).

So the next months will be full of reviews, thoughts, and all manner of short story goodness.  Let's kick it off by sharing our favorite short stories.  Mine is "The Diamond Mine" by Nadine Gordimer, though other favorite short story authors include Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shirley Jackson, Raymond Carver, and John Updike.  What are your favorite short stories and short story authors?  Or maybe you don't like short stories.  Why not?