Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

It came slowly. The rain became lighter and lighter until it fell in slanting showers. Sometimes the sun shone through the rain and a light breeze blew. It was a gay and airy kind of rain. The rainbow began to appear, and sometimes two rainbows, like a mother and her daughter, the one young and beautiful, and the other an old and faint shadow. The rainbow was called the python of the sky.

My exposure to and knowledge of African literature is woefully lacking. I’ll be honest that I had never heard of Chinua Achebe’s 1959 novel Things Fall Apart until I saw Sarah Jessica Parker talking about it on one of the episodes of PBS’s Great American Read. She made it sound interesting so I picked it up at my library and I’m glad I did.

Okonkwo is raised in his village by a father who is considered “lazy” by most standards (not just the standards of the village). It seems throughout Okonkwo’s life, he is trying to get out from under the stigma of his father. He grows up, works hard, becomes one of his village’s leaders, but he somehow always feels an outsider. Achebe weaves the contrast between Okonkwo’s individualism and his membership in his community throughout the story as the village exiles Okonkwo for what one might consider a crime – but it’s more like a “disobedience”.

The title of the novel references the arrival of white missionaries to the village. The culture and customs of the village give way to the influence of these outsiders. For the most part, this influence isn’t portrayed as a “good” one; however, Achebe sees the outsiders insistence that the community stop sacrificing children to their gods as possibly not being such a bad idea.

Achebe puts all of this together in a story with sparse prose that lends itself well to villagers’ conversations that are filled with fable-like myths about the world around them such as the paragraph I quoted above.

If one is just getting in to African literature, one could do well to start with Things Fall Apart.

Graham Greene: The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 39)

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greene stories

It was not so much the theft of the Eiffel Tower which caused me difficulty; it was putting it back before anyone noticed.

Hyper-real or surreal? That is the question.

I had to think about which one of these would best describe Graham Greene’s intriguing little story “The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower”. If I understand hyper-real correctly, it means a situation that is highly exaggerated and highly unlikely but technically still possible. A few years ago I heard author John Green speak and he suggested that his novel An Abundance of Katherines was hyper-real because it was very implausible that one high-school boy could date 19 girls in a row named Katherine but technically, it’s not impossible.

I looked up a definition of surreal and it said simply “weird, bizarre, unreal”. I think this one fits Greene’s story.

As the title states, the narrator of this four page story steals the Eiffel Tower. His “fleet of outsize lorries” goes unnoticed as he moves the landmark out to the country where he can polish it up a little. He also dismisses questions from tourists by indicating that they just took a wrong turn, they need to go down the street a little ways to get to the tower.

Yeah, kind of weird. Is there a purpose to this? Is Greene making some kind of political statement? Does he like France? Does he not like France? I’ll be honest in saying I don’t know. In the past, I’ve had a few visitors to this blog give some explanations of Greene’s work.  So if you’re out there and understand any deeper meanings to this story, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear more analysis. Otherwise, I find the story kind of cute.

And I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying the narrator eventually returns the tower.

“The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower” is included in Graham Greene’s Complete Short Stories. I read it when I selected the Ten of Hearts for Week 39 of my Deal Me In short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Stephen Crane: The Little Regiment (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 38)

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Ultimately the night deepened to the tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the shine of a button, might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant thing – the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

Stephen Crane’s “The Little Regiment” makes me wonder what I may have been missing all these years in which I’ve put off reading his novel The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve read other stories by Crane that I’ve enjoyed but for some reason have not picked up his most well-known work. I’ll say that needs to change – but I’ve said it before. It’s a novel I want to read, though.

stephen crane

“The Little Regiment” centers around two brothers, Billie and Dan, in the same regiment during the American Civil War. Billie and Dan don’t like each other and Crane makes it obvious that this is not simply playful sibling rivalry.  I found it interesting that Crane would go this route with a Civil War story as so much is made of brothers (who perhaps don’t hate each other) being on separate sides of the war having to fight each other. Billie and Dan are on the same side.

The hardness these brothers already have for each other mirrors the hardness the soldiers have to muster in doing their jobs in battle. But it contrasts with Cranes eloquent and emotional descriptions of the war’s landscape and atmosphere. As beautiful as his writing is, there is no glorification of war – only the fear and futility of it. Behind the writing lies a silent “Why?”

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction to the story, she indicates that “The Little Regiment” is not a story that has been often anthologized. I’m glad she includes it in this collection.

I read this story when I selected the Three of Spades for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Hannah Coulter

It’s the year 2000 and Hannah Coulter is 78 years old. She’s the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel and she spends the novel telling the reader about her life in a Kentucky farming community. She doesn’t just tell the reader what happens, though. She reflects about her life, her community, and the role that community plays in her life and how it fits into the world at large. Much of her story is being told to her nephew, Andy Catlett.

As an 18 year-old, Hannah marries Virgil Feltner who didn’t come back from World War II. A few years after Virgil’s death, she marries Nathan Coulter. She talks of this marriage as her “long” marriage. But her first marriage still seems fresh in her mind. She remembers it with youth and innocence and all of the romance that goes with that. She recognizes that the marriage was never allowed to grow old – for better or for worse. Her marriage to Nathan, who also fought in World War II but came home with memories of Okinawa and doesn’t die until he’s in his 70’s, gets to grow old with both good times and bad times but always with the strength of their character and their community.

So much of Wendell Berry’s writing involves loss. Hannah’s story is no different. She deals with the loss of her first husband and eventually the loss of her second husband. Her children move away from the family farm and she lives to see significant members of her community pass away. The loss of family farming as a way of life is especially difficult for Hannah and Nathan as they live throughout the majority of the twentieth century seeing numerous technological changes that  they don’t always consider to be for the better. The great losses of Hannah’s life are dealt with but not in a way in which she “gets over” them. The losses themselves never go away. Hannah just goes on living her life with them and in spite of them. The learning to live with them takes her most of her life:

As I have told it over, the past visible again in the present, the dead living still in their absence, this dream of time seems to come to rest in eternity. My mind, I think, has started to become, it is close to being, the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal, and all the creatures prosperous. The room of love is the love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven’s. Or it is Heaven, and we are in it only by willingness. By whose love, Andy Catlett, do we love this world and ourselves and one another? Do you think we invented it ourselves? I ask with confidence, for I know you know we didn’t.

I’ve never been one to choose between plot-driven stories and stories that are not but, of the latter, Hannah Coulter is one of the best.

 

Frank Conroy: Midair (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 37)

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Sean cannot see, but he senses that the men have stopped. He can hear Mary crying, hear the wind, and hear the sound of his father’s heart racing under the rough tweed of his jacket. He stares down at the street, at the cracks in the sidewalk. With the very limited motion available to his arms, he finds his father’s belt and hangs on with both fists.

As a young boy, Sean experiences the fright of a potential fall from the window ledge of a New York apartment building as the result of his unstable father. This experience and others give the title to Frank Conroy’s short story “Midair”.

Wonderful Town

I found the story sweetly unusual in that Sean doesn’t necessarily grow up with the issues one might expect after almost falling to his death at age six. Sean (and Conroy) seem to focus more on the fact that Sean didn’t fall and everything that implies. Sean doesn’t have a perfect life, but he seems to look at things from a positive standpoint – maybe not with a smiley, happy, rose-colored glasses manner, but with a quiet strength, knowing even if he is in midair, it’s possible he won’t fall.

Conroy also pulls off a feat that not many short story writers attempt. He manages to fit a significant part of Sean’s life into the limited space that a short story provides. Nothing seems glossed over. In fact, for a life story, it’s practically perfect.

“Midair” is included in Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it when I selected the Jack of Clubs for Week 37 of my short story project Deal Me In 2018My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Gray Champion (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 36)

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But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come, for he is the type of New England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the eve of danger, must ever be the pledge that New England’s sons will vindicate their ancestry.

Reading stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne always intrigues me because it takes me back to when The New World was indeed a new world – in some cases, as in “The Gray Champion”, it wasn’t even a country, yet. I love both the political and philosophical ideas flying around during these days but also the physical landscape. Both are described in this story but its the politics and philosophy that plays the central role.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The title character is a ghost-like being of an old soldier that keeps the ruling parties of the day at bay from this world’s new citizens. The story is set sometime in the 1660’s while it was published in the 1830’s. This space of time gives Hawthorne the ability to reflect on the puzzling fact that those coming to the new world for religious freedom very often brought their own version of religious intolerance.

This story is on the short side for Hawthorne and is included in the collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the Ace of Clubs for Week 36 of my Deal Me In short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Van Gogh: The Life

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With his plans for the Yellow House slipping toward failure, his yearning for that future poured onto the canvas as he labored more tenderly than ever before to express a transcendent truth through color and brushstroke: to capture the one human emotion shut out of the Cafe de la Gare, the most important one: the hope – no matter how faint or how far – of redemption.”Is this all,” he asked despairingly, “or is there more besides?”

If Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography Van Gogh: The Life does nothing else for me, it answers the question that, yes, the pronunciation of Vincent Van Gogh’s last name is not the way most (or most Americans, anyway) pronounce it with “gogh” rhyming with “go”. The biography never actually gives a correct pronunciation but simply states that the artist’s name is virtually unpronounceable.  I’ve wondered about this ever since I watched an episode of Dr. Who in which the Matt Smith version of the Doctor and his companion (Amy) go back in time to visit Vincent. They say his last name like they are clearing their throat which is closer to the Dutch way of saying it.

Of course, this biography is much more than an answer to that question. The authors combine a text book quality (it’s almost 900 pages) and a story-telling ability that make the book vastly informative while pulling the reader emotionally into the tragic life of one of our most well-known artists.

They take the common knowledge of Van Gogh or what might be called the “pop culture” aspects such as Starry Night, sunflowers, and the self-inflicted wound to his ear and let their story build to these and other events with fascinating details. I’ve said before that a good story doesn’t have to have a surprise ending, in fact, a story in which one might already know what happens but yet still makes one want to go there could actually be considered a better story. Van Gogh: The Life is an excellent example of this. For much of his life as an artist, Van Gogh consistently went against the advice of those closest to him and used only black and white, pen and ink drawings or charcoal and pencil. I enjoyed the manner in which the authors bring the reader (or at least this reader) along to the point of exasperation making them want to scream “Just use color! Stop with the black and white and use color!”

And Vincent eventually does.

One surprise aspect of the book, though, might be the case the authors make for Vincent’s untimely death not being a suicide. Suicide has become “legend” while the more likely scenario would be an accidental gunshot wound – from somebody else. Heartbreakingly, Vincent’s death propelled him to the astronomical fame he never even remotely found during his life.

I’ll add this as one of my favorite Van Gogh paintings even if it’s not as well-known as some of his others – Portrait of Camille Roulin:

vangogh painting