“One Christmas”

“One Christmas” is the third and final short story in Truman Capote’s holiday story trilogy about nine year-old Buddy and his elderly best friend, Miss Sook.   In this story, Miss Sook stays home in Alabama while Buddy visits his father in New Orleans for Christmas.

Capote reveals a little bit of background information about why Buddy lives with elderly cousins instead of his parents.  His invitation from his father, whom he barely knows, sends Buddy into an emotional tailspin.  While not wanting to leave his friend at Christmas, he feels obligated (as do his relatives) to accept his father’s invitation.

In typical fashion, Buddy’s father does everything he can to make him feel at home in New Orleans including spending money on him.  This manipulation, though, isn’t one way.  At Christmas, Buddy takes advantage of his father’s outpouring of “affection” to get a Christmas gift he’s always wanted.

I thought the story was most unusual in its dealing with the subject of Santa Claus and Buddy’s realization that his father was Santa and that Miss Sook had “lied” to him about Santa, but in true “Miss Sook” fashion, she comes up with her own philosophical explanation for Santa when Buddy returns.  For a young boy, Buddy understood more about his father’s lifestyle than one might ordinarily expect from a nine year-old.  In looking from the balcony of his room, he sees his father dancing with an older (and richer) woman.  Phrases from the song “Just A Gigolo” go through his head.

Of these three stories, “A Christmas Memory” was the first one written and the one I enjoyed the most.  Miss Sook is never named as she is in the other two (this one and “The Thanksgiving Visitor”).  The details of Buddy’s family situation isn’t necessary for the reader to understand the depth of friendship between Buddy and the woman he simply refers to as “my friend”.

Darkness Visible by William Styron

A friend of mine posted about this small little book on facebook.  I’ve never read any of William Styron’s novels such as Sophie’s Choice and his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner.  Perhaps I should have read some of them prior to reading his “memoir of madness”, Darkness Visible, but it still enabled me to gain an understanding of  the nightmare he went through while experiencing clinical depression around the time that he was sixty years old.

He published this book in 1990.  The treatment of depression may have changed and even improved over the last twenty years; however, I have a feeling that the struggles those have today in dealing with it have not changed considerably since Styron wrote about his experiences.

He uses the word “madness” in the tagline to the book’s title.  He explains that while this word tends to not be politically correct in talking about depression (and it probably still isn’t), Styron can’t think of a better description.  He doesn’t like the word “depression” because to him it’s not a strong enough word.  It reminds him of a small pothole in the road.  The word he prefers is “brainstorm” but he laments about that word having a different meaning in popular culture.  Styron’s inability to find an adequate word for his disease serves to strengthen his view that part of the terror of depression is not being able to explain it to anyone, particularly those closest to the one suffering:

…virtually any other  serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting.  His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained.  However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations.  There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship.

He credits seclusion through hospitalization, time and the undying support of his wife, Rose, with bringing him healing.  He portrays his experience with psychotherapy and medication as mediocre at best; but does not dismiss these as valid forms of treatment.

My guess is that there are more recent books that one could (and maybe should) read for up-to-date treatments available; however, I would highly recommend this short book in attempting to understand what someone suffering from depression may be going through.

 

Looking ahead to 2013

With the end of the year fast approaching, I thought I would post about my reading plans for 2013.

At the beginning of 2012, I started reading a short story each week.  I didn’t know whether I would keep it up for the entire year, so I didn’t make a formal commitment.  I enjoyed it so much that I plan to keep it up during 2013, with a twist.  For the last few years, Jay, over at Bibliophilopolis, has participated in a short story project called “Deal Me In”.  He chooses 52 stories, one for each week of the year, and assigns them each to a card in a regular deck of playing cards.  Each week he draws a card to see which story he reads.  I’m going to join him in doing this for 2013.  You can see the stories I chose on my Deal Me In: Short Story Project-2013 page.

I’m continuing with my Classics Club reading and have picked out several books from my list that I want to read in 2013.  I’m not limiting myself to these; however, most of them are what I’ve seen several bloggers refer to as “chunksters”.  So we’ll see how many others I get finished.

Have you thought about 2013, yet?

“A Christmas Memory”

I first read Truman Capote’s story “A Christmas Memory” when I was in eighth grade, which was a while ago.  My English teacher at the time told us that it had been recommended to her as a story for her to read to our class on the last day before Christmas break.  She also mentioned that her husband didn’t really recommend anything by Capote. She ended up not reading it to us; however, it was not because of her husband’s opinion.  She read it herself prior to reading it to our class and couldn’t keep from crying; therefore, she didn’t think it would be a very pleasant experience for our class.  I don’t remember what she did read to us; however, I went to the library during Christmas break, found the story and read it.  I didn’t cry.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it or that I didn’t understand why it may have moved my teacher to the point of tears.  Upon re-reading it these many years later, much of it came back to me.  I pondered why this story may have stayed with me for so long.  I don’t have an answer, but that’s fine.  The story speaks of those who see the beauty of life in the ordinary, simple, even mundane.  From the time the narrator Buddy’s elderly friend wakes up on the first cold November morning with her usual “It’s fruitcake weather” to Buddy’s bittersweet walk across a military school campus, Christmas memories flood his narrative. From the hilarious – when Buddy and his friend buy whiskey for fruitcakes from Haha Jones’ “sinful” fish-fry – to the heartbreaking – when Buddy’s friend is scolded for allowing him to drink the leftover whiskey.  The other elderly relatives responsible for Buddy take a backseat in the story to the elderly, but childish, relative Buddy simply refers to as “my friend”.

I noticed one difference between reading the story in eighth grade and reading it all these years later:  I don’t consider the story to be as sentimental now as I did back then and had continued to consider it since.  Perhaps as a kid, it was imagining my English teacher crying over a story or perhaps due to lack of maturity, I did not understand both the sweetness and the sadness of growing up and growing away from friends, family and Christmas memories.  For whatever the reasons, this story made an impact on me the second time around that went beyond mere sentiment.

My favorite part of the story came when Buddy and his friend flew their traditional Christmas gifts to each other: kites.  His friend seems to see the whole world during their outing:

“I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord.  And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark.  And it’s been a comfort:  to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.  But I’ll wager it never happens.  I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself.  That things as they are…just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Anne Tyler: Noah’s Compass

A number of years ago, I saw a quirky little film called The Accidental Tourist with Geena Davis and William Hurt.  I learned that the film was based on a novel by Anne Tyler who also won the Pulitzer for her novel Breathing Lessons.  Over the years, her name would pop up on my radar occasionally; however, I never put forth the effort to read any of her novels.  I saw her most recent novel, Noah’s Compass, in the “new” section at the library and decided I should give it a try.  I’m glad I did.

Liam Pennywell, a 60 year-old divorced, philosophy-major-turned-grade-school-teacher forced into retirement moves to a smaller apartment to embrace what seems like the final part of his life.  Throughout the novel, he looks back on his two failed marriages and the relationship with his three daughters while contemplating a relationship with a younger woman.  Liam is the kind of person in which it seems like life happens to him as opposed to him making life happen.

Tyler’s ability to present the power in ordinary and mundane people and circumstances amazed me.  Liam, his second ex-wife, Barbara, his daughters, Xanthe, Louise and Kitty, and his younger love-interest, Eunice, are not likable characters.  At first glance they range from boring to downright irritating.  But through the grumblings of an old man and his reluctant willingness to both accept his lot in life and finally make some things happen, Tyler creates characters that are so real it’s at times painful.

The title of the novel comes from Liam’s conversation with his 4 year-old grandson, Jonah. Jonah’s parents have become fundamental Christians much to Liam’s irritation.  While he’s watching Jonah for his daughter, they discuss Noah’s ark as the result of a picture in a coloring book.  When Jonah doesn’t understand how the ark could move or be steered, Liam explains that the ark didn’t need to move or be steered or even know what direction to travel as the entire world was water.  In similar fashion, Liam hasn’t seen the need to steer his life or determine what direction to move.  At one point, he recalls Dean Martin being asked about a party in which Martin asks “Did I have a good time?”.  He then asks Barbara, in a discussion about his life in general, “Did I have a good time?”.  Barbara doesn’t quite get the question.

At certain times during the novel, I wanted to dislike it.  It seemed so depressing on the outside.  Perhaps it’s because there’s a little bit of Liam in myself and while I don’t consider myself close to his age, I’m a lot closer than I used to be.  Tyler’s brilliance keeps the story from simply being a “life has no meaning” story.  She brings a depth and a hope and a life to a character who, in his own words, has “never been entirely present in his own life” and she does this without emotional heart-string tugs to manipulate the reader.

I’ve read a few professional reviews of this novel and found them to be mixed.  My thought would be that if this novel gets mixed reviews, I can’t wait to read her better ones.

Mark Twain: Hunting the Deceitful Turkey

“Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” is a very short story by Mark Twain.  As usual, this story of Twain’s is humorous, it makes the reader wonder a little, and it’s perhaps a little exaggerated.

The story simply involves the narrator, presumably Twain again, telling of his hunting expeditions with his cousins when he was a kid.  As he was one of the younger kids, he lacked some confidence in handling a gun.  He tells of one outing where he followed a turkey that was pretending to be lame “over a considerable part of the United States”.  Both new that the other was bluffing but neither gave in.  Why didn’t the young narrator just shoot the turkey as he was close enough to repeatedly attempt to make a grab for it’s neck, although he always just missed?  Why didn’t the turkey eventually just fly away as it became fairly obvious that the boy understood the turkey was bluffing?  Was it simply the love of competition?  Was it just the thrill of the chase?

As one might guess, the lack of answers to these questions doesn’t keep the story from being enjoyable.

Truman Capote: The Thanksgiving Visitor

Up until now, the only work by Truman Capote that I had read was his short story “A Christmas Memory”.  In looking through the titles of his stories, I ran across “The Thanksgiving Visitor”.  On further reading, I found that it was a companion or sequel to “A Christmas Memory”, which I plan on re-reading in the near future so look for a post about it soon.

Both stories involve Buddy, a grade school boy who lives in small-town, Depression-era Alabama with five elderly relatives.  Why he doesn’t live with his parents is only vaguely touched upon.  His relative, Miss Sook, whom he refers to as “my friend”, is a very child-like adult for reasons that again are only vaguely explained.

In “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, Buddy is threatened by an older boy at his school, oddly named Odd Henderson.  While he doesn’t explain to Miss Sook why he fears going to school, she intuitively begins to understand that it is because of “the Henderson boy” whose family she has known most of her life.

With child-like naivety, Miss Sook decides that inviting Odd to her and Buddy’s family Thanksgiving will solve the bullying problem.  For obvious reasons, world-weary Buddy strongly opposes this.  Odd accepts the invitation and the reader realizes there is more to him than meets the eye.

Capote’s descriptions of the geographical region, the time period and the Thanksgiving dinner, itself, make up the best parts of the story.   Odd Henderson’s invitation to Thanksgiving strangely enough solves Buddy’s problem; however, as the story borders on being too sentimental, Capote wisely keeps Buddy and Odd from ever being anything more than acquaintances.  Even with the sentimentality, it’s a beautiful story in its own right.