Archive for the ‘Favorite reads’ Category

Mary Craik. 56″ x 44″ Cotton

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “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 at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”— her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone —” just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” — from A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote


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One of my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol is the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, but this year I watched the new Disney 3D digital animation with Jim Carrey. It’s worth watching to hear the commentary at the end and see the characters acting out their parts with dots on their faces and motion-capture outfits.

The novel was published by Charles Dickens in 1843 as A Christmas Carol, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Each year I hear the story, I think Scrooge gets a bad rap. His character undergoes major transformation, but a person is considered a Scrooge if they hate Christmas and regard the holiday as a humbug or fraud. We would never say, “Look at John, he’s such a Scrooge. His life has gone through such transformation, and he’s so much happier now.”

Scrooge’s profession isn’t stated in the story, but it’s believed he’s a banker or money lender. He becomes the tight-fisted character we know because his father abandons him at boarding school, his sister Fran dies, his fiancée leaves him and his employer goes bankrupt. Money becomes the single focus of his life, and he never wants to depend on anyone again. The sequence of events that leads up to his survival-of-the-fittest attitude seems an about-face move because it happens in a matter of scenes, but years of sitting at boarding school while classmates go home for Christmas lead Scrooge to hate the season.

As a teenager, I played Scrooge’s fiancée Belle in a high school production. Today, I looked at the script to see how much it follows Dickens’ novel. It matches the story exactly. As I look at the script again, I see how inflexible and proud both characters are in their attitudes toward each other:

Narrator Again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Belle It matters little, to you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.
Scrooge What Idol has displaced you?
Belle A golden one.
Scrooge This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.
Belle You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?
Scrooge What then? Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.
(She shook her head.)
Scrooge Am I?
Belle Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.
Scrooge I was a boy.
Belle Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are. I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.
Scrooge Have I ever sought release?
Belle In words. No. Never.
Scrooge In what, then?
Belle (looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him) In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us, tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no.
Scrooge (Scrooge seems to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he says with a struggle…) You think not?
Belle I would gladly think otherwise if I could. Heaven knows. When I have learned a truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free today, tomorrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl — you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow. I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were. You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.
(She leaves him, and they parted.)

Here’s a clip from the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, which incidentally has the finest version of the Ballad of Barbara Allen I’ve ever heard:

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The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison (born 1931)

The following excerpt is from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, published in 1970:

Letting herself breathe easy now, Pecola covered her head with the quilt. The sick feeling, which she had tried to prevent by holding in her stomach, came quickly in spite of her precaution. There surged in her the desire to heave, but as always, she knew she would not.

“Please God,” she whispered into the palm of her hand. “Please make me disappear.” She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was the hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.

Try as she might, she could never get her eyes to disappear. So what was the point? They were everything. Everything was there, in them. All of those pictures, all of those faces. She had long ago given up the idea of running away to see new pictures, new faces, as Sammy had so often done. He never took her, and he never thought about his going ahead of time, so it was never planned. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. As long as she looked the way she did, as long as she was ugly, she would have to stay with these people. Somehow she belonged to them. Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike. She was the only member of her class who sat alone at a double desk. The first letter of her last name forced her to sit in the front of the room always. But what about Marie Appolonaire? Marie was in front of her, but she shared a desk with Luke Angelino. Her teachers had always treated her this way. They tried never to glance at her, and called on her only when everyone was required to respond. She also knew that when one of the girls at school wanted to be particularly insulting to a boy, or wanted to get an immediate response from him, she could say. “Booby love Pecola Breedlove! Bobby love Pecola Breedlove!” and never fail to get peals of laughter from those in earshot, and mock anger from the accused.

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights — if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes.
Run, Jip, run. Jip runs, Alice runs. Alice has blue eyes.
Jerry has blue eyes. Jerry runs. Alice runs. They run
with their blue eyes. Four blue eyes. Four pretty
blue eyes. Blue-sky eyes. Blue-like Mrs. Forrest’s
blue blouse eyes. Morning-glory-blue-eyes.

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.

Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.

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Objects found in oak tree

Below is an excerpt from Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960.

Two live oaks stood at the edge of the Radley lot; their roots reached out into the side-road and made it bumpy. Something about one of the trees attracted my attention.

Some tinfoil was sticking in a knot-hole just above my eye level, winking at me in the afternoon sun. I stood on tiptoe, hastily looked around once more, reached into the hole, and withdrew two pieces of chewing gum minus their outer wrappers.

My first impulse was to get it into my mouth as quickly as possible, but I remembered where I was. I ran home and on our front porch I examined my loot. The gum looked fresh. I sniffed it and it smelled all right. I licked it and waited for a while. When I did not die I crammed it into my mouth: Wrigley’s Double-Mint.

When Jem came home he asked me where I got such a wad. I told him I found it.

“Don’t eat things you find, Scout.”

“This wasn’t on the ground, it was in the tree.”

Jem growled.

“Well it was,” I said. “It was sticking in that tree yonder, the one comin’ from school . . . . ”

Jem and Scout look over objects kept in the box.

Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.

The authorities released us early the last day of school, and Jem and I walked home together. “Reckon old Dill’ll be coming home tomorrow,” I said.

“Probably day after,” said Jem. “Mis’sippi turns ‘em loose a day later.”

As we came to the live oaks at the Radley Place I raised my finger to point for the hundredth time to the knot-hole where I had found the chewing gum, trying to make Jem believe I had found it there, and found myself pointing at another piece of tinfoil.

“I see it, Scout! I see it —“

Jem looked around, reached up, and gingerly pocketed a tiny, shiny package. We ran home, and on the front porch we looked at a small box patchworked with bits of tinfoil collected from chewing-gum wrappers. It was the kind of box wedding rings come in, purple velvet with a minute catch. Jem flicked open the tiny catch. Inside were two scrubbed and polished pennies, one on top of the other. Jem examined them.

“Indian heads,” he said. “Nineteen-six and Scout, one of ‘em’s nineteen-hundred. These are real old.”

“Nineteen hundred,’ I echoed. “Say —“

“Hush a minute, I’m thinkin’.”

“Jem, you reckon that’s somebody’s hidin’ place?”

“Naw, don’t anybody much but us pass by there, unless it’s some grown person’s —”

“Grown folks don’t have hidin’ places. You reckon we ought to keep ‘em, Jem?”

“I don’t know what we could do, Scout. Who’d we give ‘em back to?”

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As far as I know, the nuns don’t watch movies or television often. On Sunday evenings they set aside time for recreation or entertainment. This includes board games, readings or skits they write and act out themselves or those written by others. Recently, I was washing dishes next to a nun who was trying to remember her lines from a play by Shakespeare they’d performed. She laughed as she described her costume.

Years ago, I gave them a copy of the movie The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the 1905 novel by Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947). I’ve seen two versions of the movie, a 1935 version with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon and a 1982 version with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. To my surprise, they liked it. For weeks they walked around repeating lines from a satirical poem about the story’s main character:

They seek him here,
they seek him there,
those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel.

In the bakery one afternoon, I received a note from one of the nuns with the lines written on the back of a gift shop leaflet.

I think about all this again because of small flowers I found outside yesterday, not flowers I’m familiar with but that remind me of the small wayside flower that are the emblem of the fictional hero in the book, Sir Percy Blakeney.

Sir Percy pretends to be a fop, a man who hasn’t a care in the world, who overdresses, puts on airs, is witty and somewhat effeminate. He is disguising his identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel, a swordsman and hero who is rescuing members of the French aristocracy from the guillotine during the French revolution. Sir Percy’s wife, Marguerite, doesn’t know the true identity of her husband and realizes it only when she discovers the insignia on his ring and on the family crest.

As I think about this story again, I wonder what inspired me to give the nuns a copy of the movie and why it captured their imaginations. Perhaps they understand the nature of living dual lives, the necessity of forming a public persona to preserve a private one.

I think of that young nun standing there giggling about her costume and trying to act out the grandiose lines of a Shakespearean play in the kitchen then composing herself before she walked through the double doors into the main dining room to serve a retreat group lunch.

The outfits the nuns wear make them seem stern and unapproachable, black and white, inflexible and formal, but behind the costumes are women who like to laugh and lean in doorways. They wear black and white robes to appear uniform but also as a reminder of identities the dress represents, a life of a time gone by. How many people write plays and act them out at home anymore?

At a business event recently, a woman discovered I did volunteer work at the Abbey and pulled me aside. As she drank glass after glass of wine, she started telling me about her life. I didn’t understand why at first. She told me about her college days and a man she fell in love with, how they used a system of coded telephone rings at his apartment to prevent his mother from discovering they lived together. They were both from large Catholic families, and she’d gotten pregnant and had an abortion.

One day she went to the Abbey to find a priest and make confession but found the main entrance locked. As she came to this part of the story, she started crying and told me she’d never been able to tell her mother or daughter about the abortion. The main entrance of the Abbey was locked that day because the nuns were out in the fields playing softball. She stood at a distance watching them as they ran from base to base with their habits flying behind them.

That moment always remained with her — perhaps because the nuns weren’t monitoring their behavior or perhaps because they were no longer symbols of purity and poverty and obedience but just women laughing and having a good time. She walked away in the woods behind the monastery toward her car, not feeling as alone. I’m reminded of the lines from Rilke, Look at them standing about — like wildflowers, which have nowhere else to grow.

Sir Percy – Scarlet Pimpernel @ Yahoo! Video

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The following excerpt is from E.B. White’s Essays, published in 1977:

Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street

Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957  For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. During September I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chair, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silence on a bare beach. But this did not happen. My wife and I diligently sorted and discarded things from day to day, and packed other objects for movers, but a six-room apartment holds as much paraphernalia as an aircraft carrier. You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes real ingenuity and great staying power. On one of the mornings of disposal, a man from a second-hand bookstore visited us, bought several hundred books, and told us of the death of his brother, the word cancer exploding in the living room like a time bomb detonated by his grief. Even after he had departed with his heavy load, there seemed to be almost as many books as before, and twice as much sorrow.

Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) is best known
for his book Charlotte’s Web.
He received an honorary Pulitzer
in 1978 for his work as a whole.

Every morning, when I left for work, I would take something in my hand and walk off with it, deposit in the big municipal wire trash basket at the corner of Third, on the theory that the physical act of disposal was the real key to the problem. My wife, a strategist, knew better and began quietly mobilizing the forces that would eventually put our goods to rout. A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of a beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the floor. This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.

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Eat Pray Love

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