BASS 2014: Lauren Groff, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” from Five Points #15.1&2

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

George Hart: Two-headed Snake Puzzle

Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of the swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.
Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans. Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the University, and if snakes hadn’t slept their way into the hot house, his father would have filled with them anyway. Coils of rattlers session formaldehyde on the window sills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coupes out back where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.

In many ways, this story was for me the opposite experience of the prior story, Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” in that I found the first half far more engrossing than the second half. Perhaps I gave up hope too soon. Or I was just too angry – first, at the adults who let this child down, and then, at his inability to heal.

Yet it was also a similar story; both use poetry, or song, to bring in a spiritual element. Instead of a bluegrass tune, here we have a sonnet by John Donne, arranged for chorus many times by a wide variety of composers:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

~~John Donne

Now, I’ll admit I’m no match for Donne. But Linda Gregerson is, and I got a great deal out of her reading of this sonnet.

For example: one important poetic element in his poem (besides “violent enjambment”; I do love coming across these new poetic terms) is the change of heart at the turn of the sonnet. For the first half, the speaker is all gung-ho for the End of Days; then he realizes, maybe he needs more time to deal with his own issues. That dovetails nicely with the story on several levels, particularly in Jude’s return to the Florida house, and in the way he was never able to fully accept “the density or lateness” of his mother’s love, but belatedly finds a different kind of peace in the knick of time.

Then we have the paradox of the title: how can a round earth have corners? Gregerson explains: It’s an allusion to the rising acceptance of scientific awareness of Donne’s time (he was a contemporary of Galileo). While the spherical nature of the globe was at least subliminally accepted in the educated (and seafaring) world, the Church was still irrationally doing everything it could to prevent official recognition of that fact, in honor of various biblical passages, including Revelation: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” Donne manages to grasp the paradox by the tail and tame it: he makes those corners imaginary, symbolic, metaphorical. This deals a blow to scriptural literalists everywhere, but so be it (if anyone wishes to take a lesson for contemporary society from this, be my guest).

The geometry of the title fits particularly nicely with the story in another aspect: Jude’s love of mathematics:

At six, he discovered multiplication all by himself, crouched over an ant hill in the hot sun. If twelve ants left the anthill per minute he thought, that meant 720 departures per hour, an immensity of leaving, of return. He ran into the bookstore, wordless with happiness. When he buried his head in his mother’s lap, the women chatting with her at the counter this took his something for sadness. “I’m sure the boy misses his father,” one lady said, intending to be kind.
“No,” his mother said. She alone understood his bursting heart and scratched his scalp gently. But something shifted in Jude; and he thought with wonder of his father, of whom his mother had spoken so rarely in all these years that the man himself had faded. Jude could barely recall the rasp of scale on scale and the darkness of the cracker house in the swamp, curtains closed to keep out the hot, stinking sun.

Geometry in particular plays a larger part later on in the story, but that would be a spoiler. Let’s just say it’s not by accident that a letter has four square corners.

By the way: you know you’ve taken too many math moocs when you start to feel annoyed that writers, when they want to portray an alienated, emotionally inhibited, but highly intelligent character, will reach for a mathematician. At least the herpetologist-father was a twist.

But discovering Groff’s inspiration for the story (equal parts Central Florida, about which she admits feelings of both love and dread, and the Donne poem) in the Contributor Notes made the above a faint protest. Once she chose the title – or rather, once the title chose her – Jude the geometer was inevitable.

BASS 2014: David Gates, “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me” from Granta #126

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: 'Day was Departing' (1857)

Gustave Doré: Plate 6, Inferno, Canto II: ‘Day was Departing’ (1857)

The name Paul Thompson won’t mean any more to you than my name would, but if you’d been around the bluegrass scene in New York some thirty years ago, you would have heard the stories. Jimmy Martin had wanted to make him a sunny mountain boy, but he refused to cut his hair. He’d turned Kenny Baker on to pot at Bean Blossom and played a show with Tony Trischka while tripping on acid. Easy to believe it all back then. The first time I actually saw him he was on stage, wearing a full-length plaster cast on his – give me a second to visualize this – his left leg, holding himself up by a crutch in each armpit, playing mandolin with only his forearms moving. And someone had magic-markered the bottom of the cast to look like an elephantine tools-leather cowboy boot. This was at an outdoor contest in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1977, the summer I turned eighteen.

I have a tendency to meld into whatever obsession I have going at any time. The mystery is why one thing takes precedence, and not something else, but right now, I’m into Dante. The Inferno, to be specific. So when Dore’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy showed up in this story, the entire story became, not about the narrator’s long relationship with his musical mentor, culminating the way such stories often do, but about the older poet Virgil giving young Dante a guided tour of hell.

The set-up was terrific. I was as charmed as anyone could be by a bluegrass group whose members have day jobs as English and math professors, with the iconic Paul Jackson himself a science writer at Newsweek. I grew a bit puzzled, even a little bored perhaps, by the shift to the narrator’s routine marriage and academic career, punctuated by brief mentions of what drew me in to begin with. I figured there was some underlying thread I was missing, but I couldn’t tell where it was. As Heidi Pitlor said in her Foreword to the volume many of this year’s stories “tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory rather than accelerate toward some definitive endpoint.”

Eventually, I felt like there was a turn, and I had some idea where we were going. And make no mistake: the initial material is essential, it just didn’t feel that way as I was reading. I did go off on one tangent: when the narrator says, “But most of the time, Paul wasn’t anybody I thought about much, though I know now that he was thinking about me,” I envisioned a completely different story than the one that actually unfolded. I still think there might be something of that tangent as subtext, but I think it was wise of David Gates to leave it at that.

In spite of the pivotal role played by Paul, it’s the narrator’s story, a story about moving on when it’s time, and paying attention to when it’s time. I think we all have some trouble with timing, but when it counts, he gets it right. Twice. Series editor Jennifer Egan says it ends with happiness. I’m not sure the narrator ends up happy, but he’s definitely better off than he might’ve been, had not the hand reached down to guide him. Come to think of it, Dante called his work a “Comedy” not because it was funny, but because it had a happy ending.

Granta included an illuminative conversation with David Gates (available online), including the source of the title: “My Sinful Past”, a bluegrass song, of course, from the Stanley Brothers:

The hand reached down to guide me
The smile was sweet to see
I heard a sinner murmur
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.
 

~~Carter Stanley

It is Dante, isn’t it.

BASS 2014: Nell Freudenberger, “Hover” from The Paris Review #207

It started a few weeks after we separated for good. In this line of work, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me. But to call it “flying” might be too misrepresented it. It wasn’t as if I were soaring above the house tops, gliding over the wide boulevards to see the sun setting over the Santa Monica Pier. If it was anything, it was hovering: a little lift, when I least expected it.

Some readers will groan when a story begins with the protagonist’s involuntary levitation, and some will say, “Wow, cool.” Just like some readers, when reading a story featuring a delicate moment in parental relations between a recently divorced mother and her adorably confused child, will say, “Awwww…”, and some will say, “Again?” I tend to fall into the second category in both cases – but I always make room for exceptions. This story split the difference, and I ended up very happy.

In her Contributor Note, Freudenberger says she’s “never written a story with a supernatural element before.” I think she got it just right, because after the mention at the beginning (which hooked me for sure), it faded into the background as I became more and more interested in her kid. I’m not a kid person. At all. But this kid – a kid who becomes attached to a bag of flour, sleeping with it, taking it to school, treating it for all intents and purposes like a teddy bear – is my kind of kid.

My friends have gently suggested that Jack’s attachment to a bag of King Arthur unbleached self-rising flour has something to do with his parents’ separation, that he sensed it coming, and it’s the kind of allegation you can’t dispute without sounding defensive. But I know for a fact that Jack had no inkling of our problems until we told him his father was moving out and that his relationship with the flour began several months earlier, coinciding exactly with the time he began asking questions about death.
“What do people do after they die?”
“How do dead people pee?”
“Will you die?”

So I bought him the flour. It sat on the shelf with the books he’d outgrown sometimes it was incorporated into a building made of Bristle Blocks or playground for the Lego people, who used it for a trampoline. He named it Malfin, which he pronounced to rhyme with dolphin.

It’s the knight on the label, I suppose – a heroic figure mounted on a powerful steed, bearing armor and a sword and a proud banner. What kid with death anxieties wouldn’t want him on their toy shelf, watching over them as they slept at night? I wondered about the name – a five-year-old wouldn’t know it’s a brand name overseas for a morphine based medication, nor would he look at the Latin “mal” and “fin” and come up with “bad end”. Maybe it was just a rhyme on dolphin.

Mom’s in denial, I suspect, about how much Jack knew and when he knew it. But Mom, presumably a writer, has her own view of the world, a view in which she is to blame for everything, and in which she compares herself to everyone, usually unfavorably.

I can’t help feeling that other people had better reasons for their breakups than we did. (This is characteristic of me, Drew would say, the way I am always comparing. How can you be happy if you’re constantly measuring your life against the lives of others? And not even examining, he would say. Inventing … fictionalizing! How can you know what anyone else’s life is like?)

See why I forgot about the flying?

Flying does play a part in the story, of course; like Chechov’s Gun, you can’t put flying in the first paragraph and have it just hang there. Mom’s hover features in a hilarious scene of a parent-teacher conference disrupted by “a peculiar carbonated sensation”. And there is, as served right up front, the symbolism of the timing. That got me thinking: is the flying about feeling light and free and joyous? Or is it about a desire to escape? Mom thinks it’s one; I suspect it’s the other.

I noticed the preponderance of the word “it” in the first paragraph, quoted above. “It” appears seven times out of 72 words, even repeated sequentially between two sentences. “It” is important, whether “it” is the ability to fly, or the need to hug a bag of flour. I also noticed another writer’s choice (though I suppose everything in every story is a writer’s choice): Mom as first-person narrator goes out of her way to avoid giving her name, even in instances where it would fit naturally, and, in most stories, that’s exactly where the author would slip it in. To wit: a conversation between Mom and ex-hubby:

Drew was incredulous. “He brings the flour to school?”
“Just for the past week or so.”
“Jesus,” he said, and he used my name, which he never does.

That’s interesting (not to mention a cute ironic twist, since he uses her name, which she doesn’t use, something he never does, except he does, but she doesn’t… never mind), particularly since she’s the only nameless character in the story. Now, that’s frequently the case in first-person narration, but here it seems highly deliberate. I wondered about some kind of divine implication – thou shalt not utter the sacred name of God, Mom as God – but that doesn’t really work. Identity plays a much bigger role in the story.

The end of the story trickled off for me. I think the last sentence is supposed to be a kind of epiphany, maybe another one of those moments everyone but Mom understands. After such an engrossing narrative, I’d expected something a little more definitive, but in a story about a woman who worries so much about what other people think, maybe it’s perfect. It’s an interesting place to stop, I’ll say that. And in a story that resists classification, it might be the most appropriate ending of all.

Musical History MOOC

Course: From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance
School: Curtis Institute of Music (PA) through Coursera (free)
Instructors: Jonathan Coopersmith, David Ludwig
Quote:
 
There are two goals for the course. The first is to understand a general survey of the development of Western classical music through the ages. By better understanding each piece we cover, you should arrive at the second and more important goal, which is to develop the skills and tools to research and understand other pieces of music on your own.

I signed up for this course on impulse, at the last minute, thinking it might make a nice relaxing complement to an intense schedule for this fall. As such, I decided going in I would approach it as “recreational learning” and would only do the assignments that interested me.

A lot of music, particularly that aimed at the non-musical public, tries to end on a “high note,” and this course certainly did; I fell in love in the last week, much to my surprise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Each week covered a different historical period. An overview of the pertinent social and musical history was followed by a biography of the featured composer and a “closer look” at a representative work, with detailed analysis of what happened musically in each performance. I especially liked that the pieces chosen weren’t the same things everyone’s heard a thousand times. For example: instead of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which I dearly love), we looked at “the chaconne” from his violin partita; instead of a familiar Beethoven symphony, the Grosse Fuge was featured. I’m sure the experienced musicians in the class were familiar with these pieces, but they were new to me, and I enjoyed hearing them in the context of learning more about how they work. I could’ve found the Grosse Fuge on Youtube, but learning why it was a big deal is a different matter.

Of the seven periods (ancient and medieval, baroque, classical, early and late romantic, modern, post-modern), I expected to enjoy the first three the most; I’ve always had a fondness for Gregorian chants, motets, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. I did particularly enjoy the early-music week (I’m a fan of old stuff), but what surprised me was the thrill I found in the final week of post-modern music (what can I say, I like new stuff, too).

The highlight of the last week was an interview with contemporary American composer George Crumb. He made high-concept music seem perfectly reasonable. Too many times, artists talk in their own conceptual language, and leave the listener feeling stupid for not understanding (to wit, John Cage); that wasn’t the case here. I was quite enamored with the idea of “extended technique” – using instruments in atypical ways, such as singing into a flute, or strumming the strings of the piano instead of pressing the keys), and his graphic notation of the kind of new music is fascinating. I can’t say I’d put Vox Balaenae on my playlist, but it’s like conceptual poetry: understanding what’s going into it is incredible.

The course consisted of three main elements: video lectures, weekly quizzes, and three peer-assessment assignments. I watched every lecture and listened to each performance, and I did fine on all the quizzes, but I didn’t do the peer assessment assignments (which are ongoing as I post this – you can still enroll in the course if you’re interested in the materials, though of course you won’t get “grades”). The first one required the same kind of detailed musical analysis of technical details – modulations, theme developments, form – as the music theory course I took this summer, and, as before, I just didn’t want to work that hard. I would’ve liked to have done the second and third assignments – a biographical approach to the musical impact of a particular composer, and program notes – but since I’d already accepted I wouldn’t be “completing” the course with a certificate, and because I needed the time in other courses, I skipped them as well.

I instead made additional effort to be more active on the message boards. I was virtually silent in the first weeks – I’m easily intimidated by those with more technical knowledge than I, and there’s a limit to how much “Do you like this? Oh, listen here…” I had time for. The staff did provide some interesting discussion questions and I participated in those with great enjoyment. Staff was active on the boards, always a good sign.

On the frivolous side, I give Curtis an award for best use of a logo in a video open on Coursera (though not necessarily all MOOCdom; I was also quite taken with one from an edX course). The music playing over the logo changed week to week to include the piece we would be studying = though it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that.

One of the best things about MOOCs is also what detractors see as a major flaw: a student can put as much or as little effort into them as desired (or as one has time for), which may or may not include “completing” the course (obtaining a certificate). Since I didn’t do the peer-assessment assignments, I didn’t complete. That’s fine with me; does anyone take a non-credit music course for a certificate? I enjoyed the course, and learned more about music; for me, it was a success.

BASS 2014: Joshua Ferris: “The Breeze” from TNY, 9/30/13

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

TNY Art by Jeffrey Decoster

The breeze, God, the breeze! she thought. You get how many like it? Maybe a dozen in a lifetime… and already gone, down the block and picking up speed, or dying out. Either way, dead to her, and leaving in its wake a sense of excitement and mild dread. What if she failed to make the most of what remained of his perfect spring day?

If you like narrative experimentation, this is the story for you. As it happens, I love narrative experimentation, as long as I can get reasonably oriented, or find a comfortable disorientation. This story provided both.

At first, I thought: cubism. That’s primarily because I’m very susceptible to the influence of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, and at the moment my modern poetry course is studying Stein’s “If I Told Him,” a poetic portrait of Picasso – poetic cubism. Not to mention Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’m at the center of some weird time vortex these days, as I keep running into interrelated things, like Norway and Wittgenstein. Or I’ve totally lost my mind and am making what shrinks call “loose associations.”

I came to my senses: it’s a story about all the possibilities that open up every moment of every day. So I moved on to the quantum universe, where anything that can happen, does happen, in some alternate universe (Star Trek:TNG fans may recall “Parallels“). Yes, this is me, coming to my senses, what can I say.

Ferris doesn’t refer to cubism or quantum theory or parallel universes in his Page Turner interview; he does, however, refer to what Willing Davidson calls the “popular acronym” FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. I need to get up to speed on my popular acronyms; I thought I was doing pretty well because I finally learned YOLO.

…there were all those alternatives, abstractions taking shape only now: a walk across the bridge, drinks with Molly at the beer garden. Lights, crowds, parties. Even staying put in the brig, watching the neighborhood descend into darkness. The alternatives exerted more power over her than the actual things before her eyes.

The concept of missing out, however, is something I’ve understood for a very long time. In The Bell Jar, Esther turns a story of a nun and a fig tree into a dream – a nightmare, really – about being in a fig tree, surrounded by all these plump, delicious figs, yet paralyzed because she could not decide, “Yes, this one,” and kept wondering if maybe the one over there might be better, but then she’d have to give up all those on the other side. A former boss, always eager to close a sale, would call it “the paralysis of analysis.” Cognitive science has long studied the phenomenon and found a choice between multiple attractive options is the most stress-laden decision situation, and often leads to refusal to choose any of them. Potent stuff, reduced to a popular acronym. Don’t you love Twitter?

The story consists of seventeen sections, each variations or continuations of various scenarios that follow when a young woman feels a beautiful spring breeze on her balcony. She recognizes this breeze as special; she wants to seize the day. She calls her husband, asks him to come home from work, to “do something.” But what? What can one do to mark this special moment? Doing one thing means not doing something else – perhaps something that would have turned out better. But doing that other thing means not doing the first thing, or any of a dozen other things… You can drive yourself crazy thinking like this. You might start thinking in loose associations, for instance.

The first section sets it up; everything else runs with it. The second section is uncomplicated by second-guessing, and is, perhaps, the perfect day: a picnic in Central Park, complete with happy ending for both, followed by an extended pub session with friends. The following sections get more complicated.

What if they get stuck in the subway for a couple of hours? Isn’t going to a movie – especially “the 3-D follow-up to the sequel of the superhero blockbuster” in a regular theater because the IMAX tickets were sold out – too plebian for a special occasion like the first spring breeze? Does her husband really “get” anything she says? Will they ever get a table at the hotel? What if they go to a neighborhood Italian place and have a nice dinner? What if she wants to, um, do it, in Central Park, but can’t bring herself to suggest it? What if she suggests it, but it doesn’t, um, work?

What breeze came had no effect on her, and she understood that the night had been over several hours earlier, when everything she was seeking in the world had been brought out from inside her. If it had not lasted long, was it not long enough? It had been an error to go in search of something more. If she had just told Jay about the breeze, shared that stupid fleeting moment with him – why hadn’t she? He might’ve understood. Everything that came after was a gift she had squandered.

I’d classify this as an “interesting” story, which sounds like a slam but is a high compliment: it’s a story that intrigues me on a technical level. It could easily fall apart (even Ferris admits he might find it annoying at first, as a reader), but it works, and that’s worth studying. It also intrigues me on a personal level as I sometimes experience the same paralysis that eliminates possibilities, and second-guessing that turns a genuinely good experience bad. Maybe the next time I catch myself doing that, I’ll remember Sarah, and what a great time was possible for her, if she’d just stop thinking so much.

NOTE: This post was originally written in October 2013, when I read the piece in TNY. I’m very happy it was selected for BASS. As I reread it, I thought again about the fig tree dream (I even wrote up a “new” paragraph before I realized I’d already written about that), and about cubism (same thing; apparently I don’t remember posts I’ve written, though I remember stories I’ve read). I think this would make an interesting piece of sculpture, with the different storylines weaving together, splitting or changing colors as they modify. Yep, I’m still weird.

BASS 2014: Craig Davidson, “Medium Tough” from AGNI #77

Claudio Goldini: "Right Hemiatrophy" (1992)

Claudio Goldini: “Right Hemiatrophy” (1992)

There’s a line where the two halves of my body intersect. It begins to the left of my throat, centers itself between the points where my collarbones meet, cleaves the breastplate and rib cage, then snakes to the left down my abdominals and carves right again before finishing at my groin. To the right: densely muscled, proportionate. To the left: austere devastation.…
My face is unaffected. Should you see me walking down the street in trousers and long sleeves, you would not notice much amiss. Were we carnally acquainted, however, you might wonder if I’d not been born so much as fused from separate cells. During maiden intimacies it’s my habit to disrobe slowly, explaining things. An educational striptease.

I never thought I’d cry over arm wrestling.

About a year ago, I read Calvino’s fanciful fable The Cloven Viscount about a medieval noble split into a good half, and a bad half. Jasper Railsback’s problem should be so simple: he is one person, living with a weak half, and a strong half. I found it most interesting to try and parse out which half is which.

Not physically, of course; that’s made clear from the start.

My right is a bricklayer’s hand. It can be taught blunt-force tasks. But I can feel music through my left hand. The right is my hammer. The left, an instrument of God.

Then again, maybe not so clear. Jasper – known as “Jazz” – arm wrestles with his right arm. He repairs premature infants’ brains with his left. Now “strong” and “weak” get hazier: is it stronger to break a guy’s arm in a match, or to thread a hair-fine filament into the ventricle of a three-pound baby to give him a shot at reaching four pounds? Is it stronger to pick up a hooker in a roadside strip club, or to teach her disabled son that technique can beat strong and fast? Is caring stronger than bitterness, forgiveness stronger than hate? Is there even forgiveness here – or just acceptance?

You’ve got to be tough for contingency’s sake. My mother was tanks to the gills when she told me this. She had left the stove element on and I’d touched it. My right hand still bears the concentric scar. She pressed ice to the burn cavalierly, never setting down the jelly jar in her free hand. You’re only medium tough, kiddo, she’d told me. Right in that meaty part of the curve.

It’s the detail of the jelly jar – not a glass, can, or bottle, but a jelly jar – that creates an entire scene out of few sentences. I can see the stove (sloppy with spills) in the cramped kitchen, the expression on mom’s face, hear her tone of voice, because of that jelly jar.

How do we measure tough, and what does our choice of yardstick say about us?

In her Introduction to this collection, Jennifer Egan said she chose this story because of the language: “The language is technical, lyrical, and sensory – qualities whose seeming incompatibility makes their fusion even more potent.” Even the poetics echo the fusion of weak and strong.

What truly captured my heart was outside the story, however. In his Contributor Note, Davidson says something few are willing to acknowledge:

“I’ve always been interested in broken characters…. There’s that Hemingway line about bones being strongest at their broken point… I don’t buy that. I’m sure it’s true in a physical sense, but the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” jazz doesn’t carry water with me. I think what doesn’t kill you can make you weaker and more frail and fearful, but despite that fact most of us still summon the will to carry on after life breaks us in the little ways life tends to…”

This demonstrates the risk of philosophy-by-aphorism: Yes, the winner standing on the stage clutching the trophy, says, “Dreams do come true if you work hard,” but witness the stream of losers backstage who also had dreams and worked just as hard. Jazz Railsback is a doctor; most would consider him a great example of Nietzsche’s dictum. But read the opening quote again, about maiden intimacies. If you’re made stronger by the burden you carry – if all that extra strength created by the burden is devoted to carrying it – is it really stronger? And couldn’t he have been a doctor with two matching sides? For that matter, how many parents take one look at him, and bring their broken babies elsewhere?

Thought-provoking story.

BASS 2014: Nicole Cullen, “Long Tom Lookout” from Idaho Review Vol. XIII

The boy sleeps in the passenger seat. He’s five years old and too small to ride in the front, but Lauren is too tired to fight. He wears a bicycle helmet and her husband’s old high school letterman jacket, the letter decorated with four gold winged-foot pins. Lauren places her hand on the boy’s back to know he’s breathing, and she thinks what she’s been thinking since they left Texas – that she has no intention of being his mother…
The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect – the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps. In Kansas, when Lauren pried the road atlas from the boy’s hands, he banged his head against the passenger window. That’s when she bought him the bicycle helmet. When he wet himself in the tumult of a Colorado hailstorm, she put him in Pull-Ups and he’s worn them every day since. She’s ashamed to admit that for three days the boy has eaten only french fries, and that for the past three hundred miles he’s been doped up on NyQuil.

I don’t know much about kids, but I’m thinking it’s a good idea she has no intention of being his mother.

But I found it hard to be judgmental towards this woman. After all, if my husband had a child five years ago with another woman, and then while he was off in the Gulf of Mexico cleaning up an oil spill, some social worker showed up and handed the kid over to me, the official stepmother, since the Other Woman’s now in jail on drug charges, I might not be feeling all that maternal, either. Like Lauren says, “[W]e’re both cleaning up someone else’s mess.”

She’s in Idaho headed for her sister’s in present tense, left Texas for New Orleans in past tense, encountered the woman her husband is staying with when he’s not on the oil skimmer, encountered her own judgmental mother… if it sounds confusing (and it was for me) in a well-written story where re-reading and underlining is always an option, imagine what it feels like to a five-year-old autistic boy who’s living it in real time.

Long Tom Lookout is a forest fire prevention station. Lauren needs a job, and by prevailing on an old boyfriend (presumably; it’s never spelled out), she ends up as a lookout. The Boy comes with her.

The instructor says, “You are the eagle’s eyes.” She says, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a fire lookout. You must be quick and decisive. You must be patient and steadfast. And you must know how to be alone.” Lauren does not now if she is any of these things, but she writes down everything the woman says.

This is the second story where I’ve had trouble catching on. I’ve been a bit concerned about a possible decline in my cognitive processes lately, and I wonder if this is more of that. Or, if it’s part of what series editor Heidi Pitlor called the “sense of disorientation” she found in many stories she read this year. Though I never really got over my initial annoyance at the confusion, I was far more affected by the ending than I’d expected. I think that means it was a successful story.

BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

The Djuvanovics came to live with us after the flood because they had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s not really true. They had plenty of places to go, they had the whole world to go to, but they came to us, and that was because of Reverend Judy. It was her idea, and Reverend Judy’s a very persuasive person. I suppose that’s a good quality in a minister, but I have to say I find it somewhat grating. The Djuvanovics had to go somewhere because the house was condemned. One wall had buckled and the roof had caved in. Everyone said how lucky it was that they weren’t all killed when the house collapsed, but they were not killed. Although they did lose pretty much everything they owned.

This story grabbed me right away, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s not really my kind of story. But it’s exactly my kind of story, in that it left me staring at the last paragraph, amazed at what I’d just experienced. Then I read it again, and found even more.

The narrator’s voice is perfectly captured – a no-nonsense, knows-her-own-mind kind of voice, with no interest in what’s current but willing to live and let live, a digressive style suggestive of speech rather than writing. Something very midwestern or New England about it. It’s not a voice that often grabs me (except for the digressions, which, well, you know). This time it did. I knew something was being held back, something would be revealed. I couldn’t wait to find out what.

I wasn’t disappointed.

However, it’s not easy to write a blog post about a story in which every paragraph contains another level: another significant insight into who these people are, another astute observation about who we all are and how we make certain choices, another “aha” moment. At some point, I have to narrow it down or I’ll be quoting the entire story (which is not available online that I can find, but is well worth the effort to obtain through Subtropics or your public library).

So what did I like so much? Voice, I’ve already mentioned. Then there’s character. Character in fiction is more about quirks and qualities; it has to inform what people do. And we need to know the characters pretty quickly in a short story so we can recognize significance and understand why they do what they do. We learn a lot about the narrator from this casual thought:

I was born and raised in this town. I always thought I would move away at some point, there are so many things that can take a person somewhere else, but none of those things ever happened to me, so here I am. It’s not that I want to live somewhere else; this is a very nice town and I can’t imagine a nicer place to live except perhaps someplace where it doesn’t snow so much, but I suppose every place has its good things and bad things.

So we have a woman who doesn’t move unless she’s acted upon by an outside force. Here comes the outside force: the flood. And Reverend Judy.

I’ve heard writers talk about trapping characters together, so they’d be forced to deal with each other. Put Jane Eyre in the same house as Mr. Rochester; turn one family member into a cockroach; even Stephen King put his writer into a house with a psycho in the middle of a snowstorm. That’s part of the role Reverend Judy plays: she forces characters together on many levels.

Although the narrator does take in the Djuvanovics, she isn’t happy about it, for a couple of reasons. One is her history with them; the other is her history with herself. She’d met Mr. Djovanovic at a minor social event, and tried to make small talk; unfortunately, it didn’t go very well:

I said, “What kind of a name is Djuvanovic?” No, I meant this in a very nice way, not at all like it was a suspicious or bad or foreign name, but I know that’s how it sounded because Mr. Djuvanovic looked at me oddly and said, “well, what kind of name is Evarts?” And I said, “I think it’s just a plain old American name, but your name is so interesting and I wonder what it means.” “Means?” Asked Mr. Djuvanovic. “It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” I realized by his hostile tone that my question had offended him, even though I had meant it in the friendliest possible way, so I tried to think of how to restore the balm of fellowship to our conversation. “Is it European?” I asked him, because no one can be insulted for being taken for a European, but this seemed only to annoy Mr. Djuvanovic further, for he said, “No, it’s not European,” and he turned away and walked over to the doughnut table and grabbed a fistful of Pop-ems. And that was the extent of my relationship with any of the Djuvanovics, and now they were coming to live in my house.

What we have here is a privilege gap. It’s the sort of conversation people of good will take for granted; it’s also the sort of conversation people who’ve taken a lot of crap because of their “origins” are not going to appreciate. The narrator would never consider a name to be a problem; Mr. Djuvanovic seems to be lacking that luxury. I doubt the narrator was being cruel, even in a subconscious way, but I can see how it easily might have felt that way to Mr. Djuvanovic. Of course, the narrator’s never been bothered with worrying about fancy notions like “privilege.” Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the most significant marker of privilege.

She’s also remembering back when she was young and foolish and had some rather unkind thoughts about the people who lived down by the river, and she doesn’t like being reminded of those unkind thoughts. She doesn’t like being reminded about a lot of things.

The reveal that explains everything that happens in this story is doled out at a glacial pace, but somehow it has an extraordinary momentum; I think that momentum, in addition to the perfect pitch of the voice, is what so grabbed me. A slow reveal has its drawbacks, and its possibilities, but here, the hints kept building. Even when I thought I knew, I knew I didn’t know. I’m astonished at how well this was done.

As the writer forces characters together, he also has to figure out what happens as a result of that. In spite of the suspense I felt all along, what happens here was inevitable. How does that happen?

A word about the image used above: it’s the image the author chose to symbolize this work when he published it in limited edition through his own Wallflower Press (now Shrinking Violet Press). It isn’t anywhere near the image I would have initially chosen – I found a great drawing from a newspaper article about a 1941 flood in Peru, and a lovely abstract mixed media piece by Kara Barkved titled “Flood Plain”, both of which had the horizontal framing I would’ve preferred to have used. But once I thought about it for a while, I realized: the author’s selection of image, like his selection of language, is exquisite.

So here I am, the fan of unusual narrative style or bizarre situations or linguistic play, giving a standing ovation to quiet domestic realism. Because you gotta go with what works, and this story really works.

BASS 2014: T. C. Boyle, “Night of the Satellite” from The New Yorker, 4/15/13

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: "Installation"

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: “Installation”

What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 A.M. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. A small thing, really, but by this time it had grown out of all proportion and poisoned everything we said, as if we didn’t have enough problems already. Mallory was relentless. And I was feeling defensive and maybe more than a little paranoid. We were both drunk…. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
“You asshole,” she snarled.
“You’re the asshole,” I said.
“I hate you.”
“Ditto,” I said. “Ditto and square it.”

Ah, love.

I was considering this story at the same time I stumbled across a poem new to me on the discussion boards of the “Art of Poetry” MOOC: Billy Collins’ “Men in Space.” Then there’s #Gamergate as background music.

Don’t you just love it when things fall together like that?

Because this story (available online) isn’t so much about male-female power struggles, as it is about how men and women see the other sex’s power. Perception has caused more wars than reality has, I suspect.

It begins, not just in media res, but in media bellum – perhaps in media bella would be more accurate, since several wars rage over the course of the story: Mallory and the narrator, the couple on the road, dogs vs. sheep, man vs. satellite, civilization vs. gravity.

We then back up to a “before” snapshot and discover: “The day had begun peaceably enough…” But just look at the language:

I got up with a feeling that the world was a hospitable place…. Mallory was sitting up waiting for me, still in her nightgown but with her glasses on—boxy little black-framed things that looked like a pair of the generic reading glasses you find in the drugstore but were in fact ground to the optometrist’s specifications and which she wore as a kind of combative fashion statement.

Even the atmosphere is defensive: the weather is “…too hot, up in the nineties, and so humid the air hung on your shoulders like a flak jacket…”

And then they run into the silver Toyota, “stopped in our lane and facing the wrong direction.” Bring on the bella (and my apologies; my last Latin class was sometime in the 80s).

It’s an epiphany story. “If something from the sky tapped you on the shoulder, you might consider it an omen of some sort,” says Boyle in his TNY interview. And if, at the same time, if you’re watching another couple engage in the same path of mutually assured destruction you’re on, you might see yourself, and wonder why you’re on that path.

At first, I thought this was a continuation of the lives of the couple Boyle portrayed in “Birnam Wood” a couple of years ago. There’s the same sense of “why are these people together anyway?” and the same grad-student aimlessness (so many writers with graduate degrees seem to like this; makes me wonder why anyone bothers to go to grad school – or, if those who got in are trying to close the door behind them). Apparently he also used the things-falling-from-the-sky plot before as well: a meteor shows up in his 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. It’s kind of an interesting post-modern technique to mix-and-match pieces of other works into a collage of a new work, but I don’t get the impression that’s what he was doing. I almost which it had been.

BASS 2014: Ann Beattie, “The Indian Uprising” from Granta #126

Tina Modatti: "Telephone Wires, Mexico" [modified] (1925)

Tina Modatti: “Telephone Wires, Mexico” [modified] (1925)

‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘Cynicism’s better?’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’

This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.

I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.

“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”

It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.

Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”

“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.

Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.

I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.

…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.

I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.

That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.

That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.

BASS 2014: Charles Baxter, “Charity” from McSweeney’s #43


“I’m Quinn.” He held out his hand. Black Bird did not take it. “My friend Morrow told me about you.”
“Ah huh,” Black Bird said. He glanced up with an impatient expression before returning to his book. Quinn examined the text. Black Bird was reading Othello, the third act.
“Morrow said I should come see you. There’s something I need.”
Black Bird said nothing.
“I need it pretty bad,” Quinn said, his hand trembling inside his pocket. He wasn’t used to talking to people like this. When Black Bird didn’t respond, Quinn said, “You’re reading Othello.” Quinn had acquired a liberal arts degree from a college in Iowa, where he had majored in global political solutions, and he felt that he had to assert himself. “The handkerchief. And Iago, right?”
Black Bird nodded. “This isn’t College Bowl,” he said dismissively. With his finger stopped on the page, he said, “What do you want from me?”

In a lecture at the 2013 Bread Loaf writers’ conference (helpfully excerpted by Graywolf Press), Charles Baxter talked about how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us. As it happens, he has a story collection coming out in February 2015 where each story is named after a vice or a virtue, and each story includes a “request moment.” This story (as well as “Bravery” from BASS 2013) will be in that collection.

I see three requests in this story; or, more accurately, two requests and one non-request, a void where a request should have been. That void steals the show for me.

The overwhelming image I have of the story is one of metamorphosis: how people change, and how, even when they realize they’re changing, they’re unable to prevent the change from occurring.

Matt Quinn starts out as a caring do-gooder in Africa. We see only the faintest glimpse of this in the first paragraph, before his metamorphosis begins: he returns to Minneapolis with some kind of viral arthritis that leaves him in serious pain. Doctors are less than helpful, and the predictable decline begins: from aid worker to thief, Matt robs a guy for enough money to buy street drugs.

Cut to Matt in a seedy bar buying drugs from Black Bird. It’s interesting that Black Bird is reading Act III of Othello; it’s where Desdemona drops her handkerchief, Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago, leading to later disaster. In college I wrote a paper convicting Emilia of Desdemona’s death (hey, come on, that’s the secret of success in humanities classes, come up with an outrageous thesis to perk up the prof who’s read thousands of essays about the depths of Iago’s evil), because she was the only character with enough of a moral compass to know what she was doing was wrong, and she did it anyway. Maybe Black Bird’s in the same category.

What lifts this out of the category of routine drug deal, in story terms, is, I think, Black Bird’s insistence that Matt bring a book as well as cash to their next meeting when the actual exchange of goods and tender will take place. Matt doesn’t bring a book, but he brings cash, and that’s enough for Black Bird. It’s also enough to reclassify Black Bird from someone interesting, to just another dealer. I’m sure he has his story, too; in his story, I’ll bet there was a time when he refused to sell the drugs, for any amount, to a bookless patron, but maybe he’s metamorphosed himself since then.

Then the story does something I find very interesting: it switches pov, from a relatively distant third-person with Matt as the pov character, to first-person a la Harry, the boyfriend Matt met in Africa. This switch surprised me; as I read on, I appreciated more and more the wisdom of this writer’s choice.

Their relationship is fascinating. When they meet, Harry is in Africa on business, selling medical supplies; he’s drawn to Matt’s compassion. But Matt doesn’t seem to see much compassion in Harry; as desperate as he is as he goes from sick to addicted to homeless, he won’t ask Harry for help:

He could be prickly, the boyfriend, and the two of them were still on a trial basis anyway…. The love might not travel if Quinn brought up the subject of debts or his vial arthritis and inflammation of the drug habit he had recently acquired.

Y’think?

Matt does make another request of Harry. It’s perhaps significant in that it shows how incomplete his journey back is. But the absence of request, in the context of their relationship, is the most interesting part of the story for me. Whether or not, in the end, the love travels, is a matter of opinion. Harry thinks it doesn’t; I think otherwise. I think the roles reverse. The word “charity,” while derived from the Latin caritas, is in older translations of the New Testament used as the English equivalent of Greek word agape: love in its chaste, selfless, most divine form; other-centered love.

The closing scene, while beautiful, seems overly explained and perhaps a little on-the-nose. Charles Baxter is not the sort of writer who spells it all out for his readers. That I think he does so, left me wondering if I’d missed the point entirely. Instead of metamorphosis, maybe I should look at, duh, charity. Perhaps one form of charity – love – is to accept, to allow someone else to give.

BASS drop 2014

This year, I detected a certain uncertainty in short stories, a sense of disorientation, perhaps a reflection of these unsteady times for publishing and readers. A lot of story writers relied on a character’s intuition or impulse to fuel the forward motion of their stories. As a result, many stories tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory – rather than accelerate towards some definitive endpoint. While some stories that I’ve read this year were built up on or around some narrative roadway – and many of those appear in this volume – plenty were not.

~~Heidi Pitlor, “Foreword”, BASS 2014

Renovations on a recently-vacated storefront near my apartment building indicate a new shop is moving in. What will it be? Maybe a sandwich shop like the last tenant – will they be a great place to go for a late lunch, friendly neighbors willing to change a dollar once in a while? – or maybe a store selling something I never knew existed – I never realized foot soaking could be a commercial venture until Soakology opened – or something totally boring like insurance, or something completely unexpected, like a druid shrine or a sock store (there’s already a sock store opening down the block, I doubt my small city could support two specialty sock stores)…

Photo: 'ready to jump' by ouzouzouz; see more on deviantartAnticipation is fun.

My anticipation of each annual Best American Short Stories starts when I close the cover of the prior one for the last time. What stories have I read, or heard about, that might make it, or that I dread seeing in the table of contents? What authors would I like to see more from – or fear encountering? What would I pick?

That’s why one of my favorite moments of what has become my Annual Blogging of the BASS is the trip home from the bookstore, before I’ve looked at the table of contents, before I’ve read a word of the foreword or introduction or any of it. Maybe I’ll find confirmation of my opinion of a story from the year, or a new something from a favorite author; maybe I’ll discover an author new to me, or someone new to everyone. Chances are I’ll find a story that will make me wonder what the hell is so great about it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll also find several that will end with me staring at the page in awe, or maybe show me something new that, yes, you can do in a short story.

Last week, series editor Heidi Pitlor began tweeting single lines from stories in this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. I was surprised to recognize two of them right away, stories I’d read during the year, from these single lines (I later recognized another, but it was after I’d seen the TOC so it doesn’t count; I also missed one. The tweets continue still).

Pitlor’s foreword begins, as quoted above, with an indication that these stories are not all linear. I found it interesting that the foreword was also not linear. In fact, it seemed as if the bulk of it – adapted into a Huffpo post – was written as a standalone, and the above opening paragraph and a few others added on to connect it to BASS. In large part, it’s a concern that writers might be outnumbering readers.

I don’t know anyone, other than writers, who reads short stories (low-end writers’ workshops openly acknowledge this; they’re writing for writers). Oh, maybe they read the one in The New Yorker once in a while (skimming it is more likely, followed by a complaint that “stories don’t make sense any more”), but when the Reading Group at my library got to Alice Munro’s Dear Life, the most frequent comment was, “I don’t like short stories.” It seems most people decide the stories are over before they have a chance to get into them; but that’s when the story starts, for me. Some have this idea that short stories aren’t “serious” literature, and since they aren’t on best-seller lists, they’re not party-talk, so what good are they?

What good is Mozart, Picasso, the doily your nearly-blind 93-year-old grandmother crocheted for your wedding gift? The good of art is in how it changes the way we see the world, the things we notice, in how it changes us. And that changes the world.

I’m rambling. Must be this unsettled, wandering thing in the air. Then again, rambling is one of my favorite things.

Jennifer Egan guest edited this edition, meaning she had the final say of which of the 120 pre-selected stories would appear.

I’m biased toward writers who take an obvious risk, formally, structurally, or in terms of subject matter, over those who do a familiar thing exquisitely.
If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders, it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world.… The vehicle for this transport into alternate worlds is vivid, specific language.

~~Jennifer Egan, “Introduction”, BASS 2014

As it happens, I have a similar bias: I like some kind of weird in my stories, and I’m not fussy about how or where the weird comes in: odd sentence structures? My kind of thing. Unusual narrative technique? Great! A character I’ve never seen before (and, since I’m not that widely read, this one tends to be easy), a bizarre plot? Bring it on. First person plural, second person, third person plural, fluid povs? My favorites (though I think they’re my favorites partly because editors do a good job of weeding out the “ok” stories in the selection process – a second-person story has to be really good to make it into a magazine, or a prize collection). A good sign?

Maybe the table of contents is a more reliable sign. Out of the 20 stories, I’ve read four of them; two of them I loved, one I seriously appreciated, and even though I wasn’t convinced by the fourth, it included a spectacular scene. I’m looking forward to seeing what Karen Russell brings. I’m downright thrilled to see Stephen O’Connor; his “Another Nice Mess” from One Story #162 was one of those miracle stories that left me open-mouthed, and though I followed up with a collection of his, I wasn’t able to connect, a miss I hope to rectify now.

I’m always slightly peeved to see how clustered the selections are around the same cluster of big-name journals – The New Yorker, Granta, McSweeney’s, etc. I understand there’s a reason those are big-name journals, but I also know there’s some wonderful work out there from less-obvious places. I see an unfamiliar title in the list this year: Image. No idea what the journal is, no idea what the story is, but I’m glad to see it there.

Another confession: I miss the old cover design. I'm just not the glossy-slick-bright-shiny-colors typeI confess: I haven’t been reading current stories in 2014. It isn’t lack of interest, it’s lack of time. As I take more and more MOOCs (right now, I’m juggling Kierkegaard, logic, music history, Dante, and a poetry course, as well as a variety of MOOC-inspired math learning projects), I have less time for contemporary reading. That makes me sad, but I don’t know how long MOOCs will be around, how long they’ll be free, and how long they’ll be as unique as some of them are right now (Robert Pinsky is teaching the poetry MOOC, and, by the way, the University of Iowa is running a “How Writers Write” MOOC; you haters can get over yourselves) so I’m cramming everything in while I can. I’ve taken the time from reading/blogging TNY and One Story. I’ve even dropped the O.Henry prize volume from my anthology rotation.

If I ever drop BASS, check my pulse; I’m probably dead.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story

Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"

Sharon Burgmayer, “Interface”

My assumption is that when we discuss the differences between long fiction and short fiction, we must discuss basic differences in the epistemology of the two forms, that is, the way they attempt to “know” reality. The short story is short first of all because of the kind of experience or reality embodied in it. And the kind of experience we find in the short story reflects a mode of knowing that differs essentially from the mode of knowing we find in the novel. My thesis is that long fiction, by its very length, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that primarily derive from, and in turn establish, the primacy of “experience” conceptually created and considered; whereas short fiction, by its length and tradition, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that derive from and establish the primacy of “an experience,” as John Dewey has distinguished these terms, directly and emotionally created and encountered.
 

~~Charles May, “The Novel and the Short Story”, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never understood the distinction between short story and novel as do those who have a more thorough grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of both. I think this chapter of May’s book – with a little help from John Dewey and Isak Dinesen – has helped close that gap a bit.

Start with Dewey. I’ve always thought of him in terms of educational theory, but here, Art as Experience is the focal point particularly Chapter III, Having An Experience. May applies Dewey’s separation of “experience” and “an experience” to the novel and short story, respectively. Dewey’s distinction:

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living…. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience.…
             In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives solutions; the game is played through…. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience….
              An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience…
 

~~ John Dewey, Art as Experience

As I read it (and, always keep in mind, I’ve been known to head off my own track from time to time), May sees the territory the novel covers as experience, whereas the short story focuses on an experience. Much of that seems to be a by-product of length. A novel, which might be read over the course of days (or weeks, or who knows, months), has as its foundation experience. Theoretically, there is a force of unity, but there are sub-plots, character-defining scenes, backstories and expositions to cover before the central thrust of that unity can be delivered. A story, on the other hand, is intended to be read in one sitting; the experience of reading is itself an experience, and the story recounts an experience. A great deal of experience might be omitted – we don’t know the heroine’s relationship with her mother or the hero’s favorite childhood toy, no matter how character-revealing it is, unless it is central to the “an experience being recounted. It’s a slightly different angle on the “unity” required of the short story, as described in May’s Chapter 1 on genre.

As I was paging through Stanford’s Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (often referred to as “Plato”) to make sure I was understanding Dewey correctly, I stumbled over an idea I’d overlooked in the original chapter:

Dewey believed it unfortunate that no term covers the act of production and the act of appreciation combined as one thing…. production and consumption should not be seen as separate….
                Dewey believed that art brings together the same doing/undergoing relation that makes an experience what it is. Something is artistic when the qualities of the result control the process of production. ….Aesthetic satisfaction must be linked to the activity that gave rise to it. For example the taste of the epicure includes qualities that depend on reference to the manner of production of the thing enjoyed.
 

~~Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Plato”), “Dewey’s Aesthetics

This brought me to Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen. Though I suppose it’s the other way around; Dinesen is the pseudonym, but the name by which I always think of her.

Dinesen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” is used as a reference point in this chapter (and in a future chapter); I’d already read it in preparation, and I’ll discuss it presently. Part of that story, indeed, is a clear explanation of the difference between novel and story by one of the characters, making it self-referential in a way I adore. But the above exegesis on Dewey brought to mind another wonderful Dinesen work, my first encounter with her, in fact, though originally through film rather than through text: “Babette’s Feast.” I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but what remains is this: Everything in that story comes down to a magical meal that redeems lives and talents tragically wasted by circumstance; and the line, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist, ‘Give me the chance to do my very best.’” The meal is an experience, rising far above culinary delight; in fact, at first the sisters are determined to stoically reject any pleasure it might bring, out of some notion of Christian asceticism, but it is the “an experience” that triumphs, lifting all to that encounter with the sacred. Reading the story is, likewise, anan experience.

“The Cardinal’s First Tale” is also an experience for the reader, and for the characters in the story. The Cardinal of the story must answer a penitent’s question: “Who are you?” The story is wonderful; I found a chapter from Susan Brantly’s book Understanding Isak Dinesen to be helpful along with May’s notes.

The Cardinal of the title tells a self-referential story to answer the question, “Who am I?” The story-within-the-story itself is great, a tale of an overwhelmed teenage princess impregnated both physically and spiritually (the latter being an idea I discovered in, and have enthusiastically embraced from, Brantly’s analysis) to the point where she delivers twins. The twins are regarded in classic opposition: a studious Priest-to-be for the Prince, an artistic sensualist for the Princess. There’s a bit of a mystery which leads to the revelation of the artistic unity of sacred and profane.

When the Cardinal has finished relating his tale of the twins, he talks to his penitent at length about story versus novel, using the very tale he’s just told as an example of the centrality of plot. She’s a little dismayed by the way “story” knocks people – characters – around, separates lovers, puts enemies together, and so forth (this reminds me of Steve Almond’s prescription in his teeny-tiny self-published book of flash and writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: “[I]t is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires”), but he assures her, that the story will provide (“Love your characters” means to give them a story to inhabit) and that it is story, first, last, and always, that makes us human:
 

“Mistake me not,” said the cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking [the novel]– the literature of individuals, if we may call it so – is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what his named the day of judgment….
              “Hard and cruel as it may seem,” said the cardinal, “yet we, who hold of our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, fairly, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them – you compassionate and accommodating human readers – that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that’s one cry of heart of each of them: “Who am I?’
 

~~Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal’s First Tale” from Last Tales, 1957

As I read that last line, I felt a great deal of similarity, in tone, to a line from “Babette’s Feast”: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” But even more, this harks back to May’s “Introduction” chapter, in reference to C.S. Lewis’ ideas on the basic human conflict, “which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.” In this story, the sacred and profane are literally embodied in the Dionysian/Apollonian twins, their union unintentional but nonetheless profound, surviving even the physical destruction of one.

An experience. I love that phrase, as I understand it. We all have many moment like that, of course; a conversation that resonates for decades, a magical night when the stars seem aligned. They don’t have to be universally pleasant, I don’t think. I can remember, as a teenager under the spell of an absurd crush, seeing the object of my feelings with another girl, and realizing they looked right together, in a way he and I would never look right. As devastating as it was, it was also highly instructive; forty years later, I still remember the color of the sky and the feel of the grass. During each of my once-a-decade experiments to see if I still suck at writing fiction, I try to capture it in prose, and fail each time. But at least now I know what to call it, and that, with a plot that makes the moment surprising yet inevitable, it belongs in a short story.

I’m not sure why I never read more of Dinesen’s stories; I quite enjoyed this story. With so much to read, a lot ends up deferred, but I’d like to revisit her at a later time. And, of course, I’ll keep reading Prof. May’s book; I’m quite enjoying it as well, and encountering numerous wonderful treasures in its pages.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story

Boccaccio: The Decameron - Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

Boccaccio: The Decameron – Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

My own study of the short story is based on the assumption that a group of literary conventions cluster around short fiction because of its shortness and its relationship to other genres throughout its history. … The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

Having established some guidelines for “the genre” of short story in Chapter 1, May now turns to looking at the development of the form over time, with a more historical approach to the development of the short story: its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the Renaissance and embraced a few centuries later by the Romantics; the nineteenth-century period of development showcased by Poe and Hawthorne; and the modern tale of Chekhov and Carver. I’m a bit disappointed not to see any indication of the more post-modern take on story, where narrative itself is optional, but, after all, the current historical period is still open. In any case, since my weakest knowledge is of the past, this is a good place for me to focus. There’s some overlap with Chapter 1, as these are all previously published academic essays collected in this volume, but the focus is one of time, not genre.

A good place to begin, in any history is the beginning; but what was the first short story?

Perhaps the most equitable and yet the most manageable starting point is that era when short narratives, written in prose first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and religious allegory and qualified as a form of individual human art. Most historians agree that such a point was reached with the publication of Boccaccio’s revolutionary collection The Decameron in the middle of the fourteenth century.

This surprised me. In high school, I was taught Guy de Maupassant was the first short story writer; in college, that shifted to Poe. The Renaissance? Interesting…

I can see the point, though. At the time of Boccaccio, religious allegory was the major formal literature in Europe (and we are taking a highly Eurocentric view of literature throughout this book). But folk art will not be denied, and “vulgar popular folktales” consisting of “anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales without established traditions of narrative procedures and rhetorical devices” (pg. 31) coexisted with the approved forms. Boccaccio’s achievement was to combine these approaches: to write a tale with a narrative structure and a point, but to base characters and events on real life people and situations instead of idealized visions that existed only to personify morality. Part of the task, May says, was to ” transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern” – to create the inevitable surprise that underlies successful fiction.

I have not read The Decameron nor do I particularly wish to (I’m about to dive into Dante via another MOOC, and I only have so much verbal energy, not to mention time for intense reading). Overall, the structure of the whole reminds me of The Canterbury Tales, which has its share of vulgarity, as well as significant resentment of higher religious authorities (those who think popular culture today is a mess should check out Chaucer): an assortment of people find themselves together (in a village escaping the plague-ridden city, or on a pilgrimage to Canterbury), and tell stories to pass the time. Canterbury was, of course a poem, not prose, but the comparison remains.

I did read one story chosen at random (I.6, An honest man, with a chance pleasantry, putteth to shame the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders), and perhaps saw the “poetic justice” and “ironic patterning” to which May refers, as incorporated into the plot. This, he says, marks a shift from the religious allegory, which exemplifies a religious ideal thus refers to an external moral point, to story form, in which the plot takes on the burden of creating meaning by the structuring of events. In the story, a winemaker is taken to task by religious authorities for claiming he has a wine fit for Christ to drink, and is assigned to eternal torment; on payment of a fee to the official, the sin is mediated. He later invokes a Bible quote to embarrass the official by pointing out the greed and gluttony of the cleric’s habit of feeding only his table scraps in a broth to the poor, thus hoisting the man of god on his own petard, so to speak – the “reversal of intention” May links to such stories as “The Gift of the Magi.”

The basic romantic tendency is to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine. The return to romance of the nineteenth century is a return with a difference; the formulaic stories remain much the same, but they are now given a new basis of authority – the subjectivity of the teller – even as the story events themselves are presented as if they were objective events in the phenomenal world….This focus on the individual perspective creates a new tension in the old tale – undermining the mythic or supernatural authority of the story and placing an increasing emphasis on the relativity of reality, the ambiguity of the event, and the skepticism of the teller.

When I read this, I thought of the Greek & Roman Mythology MOOC I recently completed. Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania talked about instances of Vergil’s “rationalizing impulse” in The Aeneid: is Dido’s undying love of Aeneas due to the meddling of the gods, or to the sympathetic framing of the hero caring for his son; is Anchises’ appearance in a dream a visitation from the spirits, or a psychological manifestation of Aeneas himself? I think that’s something like the tension analyzed here.

May then turns to the Romantic period of the 19th century. There was, in fact, a resurgence of interest in Boccaccio at this time, and The Decameron was again of interest to scholars. To illustrate the Romantic period, I chose to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which May mentions as an example of a work which “presents a situation that is seemingly supernatural and symbolically significant, but which the narrator simultaneously undermines with his skeptical ironic point of view.” In the Introduction, he also mentioned it was the source of the title of this collection of essays: the main character, teased and harassed, finally breaks his tolerance with an outcry: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and, though he is never aware of it, those words have a profound effect on one of the bullies and allow Gogol to spell out the direction of the tale: upcoming revelation of hypocrisy and artifice.

In these moving words, other words resounded –”I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and noble.

 
~~ Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, “The Overcoat”

I wish we could all have those moments at critical times – when an abused child braces herself for a blow, when a minimum-wage worker is told how motivating poverty is, when a young boy cries, “Don’t shoot!” perhaps. But back to the story, and the tension between hints of the supernatural, against the ironic distance of the narrator.

References to the supernatural are scattered throughout, from the granting of Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin’s very name (was it the fate of opening the calendar to certain days, or merely a family name handed down – or a mother’s disregard for her child?) to the “involuntary sensation of fear, as if his heart warned him of some evil” just before his cloak is stolen (the presence of a wraith, or the usual fear of being in a deserted, strange area late at night?), to the rumored haunting of the Kalinkin Bridge by a dead man (or was it the same thief – was there even a thief at all, given that the coachman saw nothing amiss, or was it the magistrate’s conscience that tricked him into creating a thief out of the wind?). All of this, as May says, is related by a highly visible narrator who maintains a tone of reason throughout. Yet the “poetic justice” of the second theft somewhat relieves the sadness of the first – I say “somewhat” since, after all, Bashmatchkin is still dead.

May revisits Poe’s discussion of aesthetic unity as the primary requirement of the short story, adding “the psychological obsession embodied in a first-person narrator” to the array of techniques used in the nineteenth century. Just the mention of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is enough to illustrate this point. I wonder if the repetitive nature of Poe’s poetic forms, such as “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee”, suggested or merely dovetailed into this notion.

We move forward to the era of the “modern” short story:

…[R]eality in the modern short story seems to be a purely objective event, even as at the same time the intense selectivity practiced by Chekhov, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver results in an intensification of reality that no longer seems objective and real, but what some critics have called “hyperrealism”…. reality is so attenuated and restricted (rather than developed and expanded as in the realistic novel) that it takes on an hallucinatory, dreamlike effect….objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful by the motivating force of the story’s own thematic and structural demands.

I chose to re-read two stories as exemplars for this section: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “Chef’s House”; neither are explicitly mentioned in this chapter, but they seem to fit the bill, both of the above hyperrealism, and of what May refers to as the movement of the character from ignorance to knowledge.

In Hemingway, the landscape itself becomes symbolic of the conflict between the couple. As such, it’s constantly emphasized: the arid, sun-bleached hills on one side, the lush greenery on the other. I was always taught that the dry side signified barrenness, thus the option of abortion, which the man prefers, while the other side is associated with life should the pregnancy continue. That’s fine – but I’ve always wondered if the man’s viewpoint might reverse those, if he sees the stark side as his life burdened with woman and child, while living will forever be at his back. Not to excuse him – I certainly see him as a bit of a bully and shirker in this – but to mix things up a little. Two people look at the same landscape, and have opposite associations. Different readers often come to very different conclusions about this story: just what was decided, if anything?

In the context of this chapter, I’m more interested in the movement of both characters from ignorance to knowledge. The knowledge, I think, is not one of which side to choose: each knows more about the other, and more about him/herself and the extent of his/her power in their relationship. I also suspect this relationship is doomed.

“Chef’s House” shows another couple moving towards knowledge of the other; it’s a favorite of mine. I read it a couple of years ago having seen it mentioned in Prof. May’s blog in connection with another story. I see here also the landscape, the details, exaggerated and symbolicized to this dreamlike state. I said at the time: “you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – the ocean is on the other side of ‘access’ and ‘free’.” There’s a double negotiation: in the beginning, Wes convinces Edna to come live in Chef’s House with him, and at the end, Edna tries to convince Wes that the loss of the house need not be the end of their idyllic (to her) summer. Wes prevails in both cases, as each discovers what he/she wants, and whether or not the other can participate in that goal.

In neither case of these “modern” stories is the supernatural, or some higher moral principle, or even a narrator, an element. The story is in the setting, the characters, and the choices they make, the actions they take.

The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

May’s historical view of the short story ends here. I wonder, on reflection, if the emergence of the importance of form in narrative over the past 20 (50?) years is a new trend, or just another glint in the window. I’m a fan of unusual narrative devices: lists, dialog captures, found text, instructions. Most recently, comix (aka “graphic stories”) which have a grammar of their own – One Story opened up a world I’d previously dismissed with Matt Madden’s “Drawn Onward” in Issue #182. I look forward to new things.

I also look forward to Prof. May’s Chapter 3, “The Novel and the Short Story.” My life is about to be complicated by concurrent MOOCs, plus the publication of BASS in October, so I can’t promise a schedule; it will happen, however. Inevitably, surprisingly.

Revolutionary MOOC (the French Revolution, that is)

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: 'Celebration of Unity,  Destroying the emblems of monarchy,'  Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Pierre-Antoine Demachy: ‘Celebration of Unity, Destroying the emblems of monarchy,’ Place de la Concorde, 10 August 1793

Course: The French Revolution
School: University of Melbourne, Australia; through Coursera (free).
Instructor: Peter McPhee
Quote:
 
The French Revolution continues to fascinate us, to inspire us, at times to horrify us. Never before had the people of a large and populous country sought to remake their society on the basis of the principles of liberty and equality. The drama, success and tragedy of their project has attracted students to it for more than two centuries. Its importance and fascination for us are undiminished as we try to understand revolutions in our own times.
 
This subject examines the history of the French Revolution from its origins to 1799.

I’ve always been confused by the French Revolution: the good guys and the bad guys keep changing. I now understand it a little better, and I understand my confusion a lot better: the good guys and the bad guys do, indeed, keep changing. It’s what happens when a good idea goes very, very wrong.

The first thing I noticed about the course was the high degree of organization. Not only were weeks set up with a page listing the videos, readings, and assignments, but a Study Guide and Facebook Group was all prepared; later, when peer-assessed writing assignments came due, a “How to Write an Academic Paper” video was released. Because MOOCs are, true to the acronym, open, some students have advanced degrees, while others have had little, or poor-quality, formal schooling. It’s always nice to see a course where the staff is aware of that, and provides options.

The material was typical for a history course: a look at what led up to the Revolution, the key players, the sides, the social, political, and economic forces, and, in one case, an interesting look into historical research techniques: rather than rely on “People were reading Enlightenment literature”, lists of books in libraries, and records from legal encounters with dealers in contraband materials, were examined to see what books different categories of people actually possessed or showed interest in possessing. It’s a little like looking at Amazon’s sales records, instead of publishing figures. Which, of course, is routine marketing today, but I was interested in the notion of methodology. By the way, in 500 private libraries, only one copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract was found; in the records of contraband book manufacturers selling cheap knock-offs, Diderot’s Encyclopedie was far more common – but satirical porn ridiculing Louis XVI was everywhere.

The only grades given for the course were through peer assessment of two written papers; this isn’t unheard of for a humanities course, though it’s not common. It raised some anxiety for the first paper,but less for the second; I don’t know if the worriers dropped out, or if most people were satisfied with their grades and trusted the system. For the record, I felt like I was given a higher grade than I deserved on the first paper (the second paper was graded exactly what I would have given it myself). But it’s always luck of the draw. I overgraded the papers I assessed; I always do, spending my evaluation time on concrete suggestions and/or specific props rather than deciding between one number and another on multiple axes.

The forums were very active, with lots of targeted discussion on questions suggested by the lectures and reading materials. Each week, we were to answer one discussion question, and post it in the forums; I rarely did, since adding a 62nd post saying the same thing as 24 of the preceding posts didn’t seem beneficial to anyone, but some good commentary arose.

It was a good course; I do wish there had been more emphasis on source material. It’s listed as eight weeks, but the last two were entirely given over to the peer evaluation phase; this struck me as a little much, but it was structured to allow an initial evaluation, followed by the release of an “instructor’s suggested response” and potential re-evaluation. Again, some students may never have written a college paper, even a MOOC college paper, before, so I suppose this is supportive, if a bit much. Then again, it was quite nice to have a break.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly inspired by the course, but that’s me; everyone has different tastes and interests (and differing amounts of time to devote to a class). I learned what I hoped to learn, and others were very happy overall, so I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter. Inspiration is as inspiration does.

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Meh MOOC

Course: Pre-Calculus
School: UC-Irvine, through Coursera (free).
Instructors: Dr. Sarah Eichhorn, Dr. Rachel Cohen Lehman
 
Quote: This course is designed to prepare you for a college-level Calculus course. Through this course you will acquire a solid foundation in algebra and trigonometry. Emphasis is placed on understanding the properties of linear, polynomial, rational, radical, piece-wise, exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric functions. You will learn to work with various types of functions in symbolic, graphical, numerical and verbal form.

That might’ve been the intent… but for me, the experience was a lot different. This course reminded me that I hate math. I forgot for a while there.

It sounds churlish to bitch about something offered for free, but considering the other math MOOCs I’ve taken over the past year and a half – courses I loved – this was a disappointment. It’s ironic that my disappointment is partly due to the fact that I’ve had the good fortune to encounter some spectacular math courses through MOOCs (most of which I’ve talked about at length), with instructors who put thought and effort into their planning and execution. Granted, I struggled through some of them, and sometimes felt a little beat-up by the time they ended, but I always recognized their value. Like most silver linings, it comes with a cloud: ordinary math courses just don’t cut it any more.

This was a very ordinary math course. It isn’t what MOOCs can be. It isn’t even what math can be.

Things started out with great promise. Week 0 – a terrific idea – allowed everyone to review some concepts from prereq algebra, to get used to the (very clumsy, grr) system of answer entry (come on, Coursera, can’t you figure out how to integrate LaTex? And why so stingy with the Preview buttons?), and do the usual “Hi, I’m such-and-such from Hereabouts and I’m 16/30/75 years old and I love/hate/never took math” forum posts. I noticed a number of acquaintances from other math MOOCs, all of them seemingly beyond the need for pre-calculus (most of us met in various calculus classes, in fact) but someone unfamiliar with my difficulties with algebra probably thought the same thing about me. I was looking forward to the course, and to finding out what I’d been missing all along, whatever it was that was keeping me from understanding algebra enough to recognize what I encountered in other settings. I was also looking forward to being able to help out others; I love answering questions, giving hints, working on explanations, and I figured I could do more of that than I typically can in Calculus.

But things went downhill fast.

Each lecture video, delivered by a disembodied voice, started out with, “Let’s look at… solving rational equations/evaluating logarithmic expressions/using half angle identities” and ended with “And this is how we… solve/evaluate/use.” In between, one or two problems was worked out step by step in great detail. That’s great – and in one case, I discovered why I have so much trouble solving inequalities – but nothing related to anything else; no particular reason for looking at rational equations, or logarithmic expressions, or half angle identities, was given. It was back to 10th grade, when I thought what mathematicians did all day was solve problems out of a book, never even thinking about who wrote the problems in the book or why they needed to be solved; it was what math was about: here’s a problem, find the answer, next.

A PDF textbook was included in the course materials, and it seems the idea was: if you want to know why synthetic division, or the quadratic equation, or the half-angle identity works, go look it up. Now, there’s a lot to be said for doing personal research, but if I could learn math from a textbook, I wouldn’t be taking MOOCs. It seems to me even a few videos explaining key concepts would’ve gone a long ways. And, for pete’s sake, the MathIsFun website was used as a major resource. It’s not that I have any problems with the website (except the name) – I love their “interactive unit circle” – but it shows an attitude of “Why teach? Just link. We have better things to do.” Maybe that’s the idea behind the course: it’s not about increasing understanding, it’s about listing resources, and after that, you’re on your own. Just like real life.

The instructors, who seemed active on the boards in Week 0, disappeared completely after that. Now, that happens in lots of MOOCs (though less so in math courses), but usually staff or CTAs (community teaching assistants, students who took the class before and did well, and showed some ability and interest in helping other students on the forums) are on hand to provide expertise. Not so here. At various points, even the Coursera technical staff seemed to abandon us, and issues of missing videos, out-of-order videos, and inaccessible elements went unaddressed. Even the strangest element of the course – they announced the discussion forums would be “closed” once the exam was released – never happened; I’ve never heard of that being done before, it seems ridiculous to me, but to announce it and not do it just shows how unconnected the people running this are. It’s like they’ve converted this course to “remote control/self-paced” while keeping the time limits. I don’t like the self-paced approach (and, unfortunately, that’s where MOOCs are going), but even I recognize each approach has advantages and disadvantages; still, combining the worst of both makes no sense.

Some of us tried to expand beyond the “here’s a problem: do it” mentality. We had a rollicking discussion of positive and negative square roots, but I still could use some expert guidance on this; it seems sometimes the primary square root is always assumed, and sometimes it isn’t, and I don’t feel confident that I’ve nailed down the possibilities. I would’ve liked to have done a lot more work on logarithms and exponentials, one of the main reasons I took the class; I got more out of my random wanderings through AoPS and Khan than I did from this course, which covered how-to-do-it but not that elusive why-it-works. Trig identities was the biggest disappointment. Someone asked about the connection between the unit circle and the traditional Cartesian graph of trig values, and while I could point them to lots of interesting graphics, I realized I have no idea how to explain it. I should, at this point. I should be able to create those graphics (well, except for the programming part). So the takeaway is this: I took yet another trig class and all I got was a list of identities. I have that already. I wanted to understand them, how they fit together, why they work.

I also brought in a couple of goofy “how would you solve this” puzzles from other sources. In both cases, that led to wonderful explorations with one or two other students. Most of it didn’t have much to do with material in the course (though it was the first time I’ve ever been motivated to actually use logarithms by anything other than a math test), but it was enjoyable; maybe, for me, learning to “enjoy” math is the most important lesson. There wasn’t much interest in this, however (only one other person ever joined in), so I stopped doing it.

Another great experience was in helping another student, through email. He’d missed a week way back, and was struggling with a few questions. Going through his work and figuring out 1) what the answers should be, and exactly why, and 2) where he went wrong, felt like a very profitable use of what turned into a significant chunk of time. The old “you don’t understand something until you can explain it to someone else” is very true. The discussion forums provide some opportunity for this, but mostly people are looking for answers. Also, I’m so slow in coming up with explanations, I’m usually too late, and while I’m working out the details (and discovering what I don’t understand about the underlying principles), someone else has answered the question and everyone’s moved on. I’ve always been too slow for real time – even the real time of a message board. Discussions tended to dead-end without any feedback from the original questioner. Math course message boards are usually terrific (I still refer to old Calculus and Mathematical Thinking posts occasionally) but not here; I’m not sure why. The students seemed younger; lots of high schoolers, maybe that had something to do with it.

Maybe I have unrealistic expectations. Maybe I’m missing something so obvious to everyone else, no one needs this stuff. Maybe I’m lazy and I should continue to research it myself (which hasn’t, to now, been a screaming success, and is laden with misconceptions that don’t always become evident until a unique set of circumstances exposes them – at which point I’m back to square one). Maybe this course was too easy for me – though that strikes me as a ridiculous notion. Maybe the course I want doesn’t exist, or I’m looking in the wrong place. But I expected a lot more in the way of understanding, and instead got a lot of “this is how we graph parabolas.”

I did well on the weekly quizzes, score-wise, which surprised me. Nearly every quiz, I was shocked when I scored 4/4, 5/5 on the first attempt. Here’s what still concerns me: if I don’t know whether or not I’ve got the right answer, does it count?

Then there was the final exam. The timed final exam.

I’ve always said I don’t care about grades, and to a large degree that’s true; at my age, I’m over grades. But with this course, it was a matter of pride; if I’m going to slam something, it doesn’t look good to flunk. Also, since I’ve been taking Calculus for a year and a half (and I’ll keep taking it for the next year and a half, until I feel like I understand it), I should be able to do pre-calc. So I felt some pressure to pass. But I don’t do math quickly, and the time limit worked out to about 4 minutes per question. That’s barely enough time for me to set things up so I’m ready to do the math. See, I work in multiple media: I’ve become quite adept at using the Word Equations function for algebraic calculations, which eliminates handwriting mistakes (but allows typos; nothing’s perfect). But sometimes I use a whiteboard, for drawing unit circles or graphs or just putzing around diagramming a number line or graph. I also have piles of paper, which is nice if I want to work standing at the window instead of sitting at my computer. Sometimes I start in one medium, then realize another is better suited. Sometimes I just use the completely wrong approach, and don’t realize it until halfway through; I have to start over. And sometimes (often), I make “bone-headed mistakes” – drop a minus sign, calculate 4*8=36, that sort of thing. Sometimes I have to stop and think about adding and subtracting negatives and positives. Sometimes I need a walk around the block, or a cup of coffee, or just a rest break. This all adds up to a lot more than 4 minutes per question.

Pressure!

Suddenly it became all about getting a grade – a pat on the head, approval, performing the tricks I’ve been trained to do – instead of about doing math. I realized: this is why I always hated math classes. And this is why I’ve loved the math MOOCs I’ve been taking, even when I didn’t do well on tests: I was still learning something, failing at something worth doing, something worth trying for again (which is why I take so many math classes more than once).

For the record: two attempts at the final were allowed. On the first, I only got to 24 of 35 questions, got 2 of them wrong, for an overall score of about 60. I went through every test question (some of the questions I’d skipped because they looked scary turned out to be quite simple, if I’d just taken the time to actually read them and think about them), checked a few procedures (I know how to find the inverse of a function, I just don’t always remember that I know), lined up my ducks in a row (do I have my whiteboard? Calculator? Coffee? Teddy bear? Half-angle identities cheat sheet? Because, no, I’m not going to memorize that). And I ended up with a perfect score. Yes, a few of the ones I’d already seen were repeated, but most were new.

But did I learn anything?

Well, of course I did – I got some much-needed practice in trig identities, for instance. But mostly, I learned what I wanted to be doing instead.

I identified some concepts I want to understand better. The primary square root, for example, versus the square root function. Derivations of trig identities. One question from the final intrigued me: it turns out tan^2(x) – sin^2(x) = tan^2(x)sin^2(x). How can the difference of two functions, equal the product of those same two functions? I know the identities; I can solve the problem – I got the question right, so I know the procedure – but there’s a relationship there that I don’t grasp just from knowing tan = sin/cos… What is it? But it was the final, I had four minutes; so I saved it, and I looked at it more closely once the timer stopped ticking away – but I’m a mathematical idiot. I’ll look again.

During the introductions of Week 0, it seemed to me that the course was taken by more first-time MOOCers than most. I felt like going around apologizing to them, telling them, “This isn’t what a MOOC can be.” But who am I to decide for someone else? Maybe it was exactly what they needed. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but maybe I can spin a silk purse out of a sow’s ear anyway. Maybe that’s what I needed to learn.

Musical MOOC

Art by Nick Daniels

Art by Nick Daniels

Course: Fundamentals of Music Theory
School: University of Edinburgh, via Coursera (free).
Instructors: Dr Michael Edwards, Dr Zack Moir, Richard Worth, Dr Nikki Moran, Dr John Philip Kitchen
 
Quote:
This course will introduce students to the theory of music, providing them with the skills needed to read and write Western music notation, as well as to understand, analyse, and listen informedly. It is suitable for those who have never studied music academically but will also be useful to experienced musicians who wish to extend and develop their practice through a grounding in the tools of Western music theory and notation. We assume no experience with notation whatsoever.
 
The course will provide the basis for the further study of music both from a theoretical and practical point of view: musicology, composition (both pastiche and free), analysis, performance, and aural skills. You will cover material such as pitches and scales, intervals, clefs, rhythm, form, meter, phrases and cadences, and basic harmony.

If that seems, to those with some musical training, like an awful lot of stuff to learn over 5 weeks… you’re right, it is.

I signed up for this course on impulse. I learned to read music – first self-taught, then from piano lessons, choral singing, and a high school music theory course – back in the 60s, but I’ve never been truly conversant in music. I’m not surprised; the same people who do well in math, also do well in music, since music itself – pitch, rhythm, tone – is made up of mathematical structures (just ask Vi Hart, whose musical “Folding Space-Time” video is one of my favorites). And of course, I do pretty poorly in both. My mathematical struggles are well-documented here, and, though I can sing pretty well once I’ve learned a part, I’m only a mediocre sight-reader, and I’ve never met an instrument I could actually play. A former boyfriend learned to play Beethoven’s Sonata (“Moonlight”) over the course of a month by watching me play one measure at a time – and memorizing which keys to hit. At the end of a month, he played it better than I did. I don’t think I ever forgave him for that.

And yet, music touches me deeply, as it does most people, I suppose. Most of my memories have added soundtracks. I associate people, courses, events with “theme songs” (though I never called them that until Ally McBeal came up with it). So I keep trying. I figured, since I’ve been devoting so much time to math, maybe my ability to analyze music had improved.

I figured wrong.

This was, for me, a hard course; I can’t imagine how hard it was for someone who’d never learned the basics of notation, where the G falls on the treble clef, what an eighth note is, the key signatures. I did all the quizzes, but I never did complete the final project (which was, in my defense, listed as “optional”), an analysis of a couple of pages of a Mozart string quartet. Really? after five weeks of music theory, you want me to work out the harmonic progressions and the phrase structure? I’ll be honest: I just didn’t want to work that hard, and that’s my fault; my motivation wasn’t there. I didn’t take this course out of a real desire to learn, or re-learn, music theory.

So why did I – and students struggling even harder than I – stick with it? Because the instructors worked so hard to teach, they inspired me to work a little harder to learn. The next time someone who’s never taken a MOOC writes an article about how an online course with 40,000 students can’t possibly match the “personal experience” of bricks-and-mortar college, here’s another example (just ask me, and I’ll list them all) of how personal and intense the MOOC experience can be.

Before the course even started, the twitter account (@musictheorymooc) was alive and kicking, sending and retweeting all sorts of clever things (like a Bobby McFerrin video about the universality of the pentatonic scale, and later, the Cycle of Fifths image used as header art above); both instructors and students were responsive and helpful. Throughout the course, new videos were made “on the fly” to respond to questions that cropped up frequently on the discussion forums. Google hangouts were scheduled for live interaction with instructors, quelling panic and increasing understanding. These are things that don’t show up in the course description, but which make a big difference to struggling students.

The effort the instructors put into actual teaching kept me active, and doing the weekly quizzes (which in most cases took at least an hour), until the very end. In that, it was as if the motivation of the instructors to teach was sufficient to keep me learning, in the absence of my own motivation. Not the way learning works best, but it was strong enough to keep me going; they made me want to do well in spite of myself.

So yes, it’s hard, but I can recommend it for those who are motivated to learn musical notation and theory. If you’re willing to put in some work, and you can tolerate a bit of frustration when you don’t understand something immediately, chances are you’ll learn quite a bit about what musicians talk about when they say things like “diminished seventh” and “modulation.” And you couldn’t be in better hands than with these folks from Edinburgh.

Even after all the MOOCs I’ve taken, I’m still not sure what makes the great ones work. Maybe it’s effectiveness in some combination of different elements: organization, presentation, inspiration, information, for instance. I’ve taken lecture-only courses, with no instructor involvement, that were terrific, maybe because I was highly interested in the subject matter (Fiction of Relationship, for example). I’ve taken courses that were incredibly hard for me – harder than this one – but I considered outstanding because they inspired me to learn more (Intro to Mathematical Thinking is the prime example). Sometimes, I start out pretty grumpy, but something happens during the course and I become a fanatic (I sulked through the first five weeks of Modpo, then caught on fire and became a more creative person as a result). Sometimes I admire the structure and design of the course (Corpus Linguistics) which perfectly dovetails the needs of rank beginners and practicing professionals; sometimes I’m inspired by the work that went into preparing materials for the class (SV Calculus), to the point where mastery of the material becomes a quest which I must complete, no matter how many times I have to repeat the course.

Like all MOOCs, it depends on what your goals are, and how much effort you’re willing to put into achieving those goals. The effort required here, of those with “no prior musical notation experience” as the course description says, is significant; just watching the videos won’t do it. Many of us spent a lot of time on musictheory.net which provides extensive exercises, and probably needs to be emphasized more in the course materials; that helped. Whether it’s worth it or not, is up to the student to decide. If you’re looking for a place to bullshit about “What is Music” or debate the relative merits of the Beatles vs Haydn, there are probably better courses (though there was some of that, particularly in the early weeks).

The value of this course for me lay outside mastering the technical material. I loved discovering that one instructor, Zach Moir, researched “The Impact of Cochlear Implants on Musical Experiences” as his doctoral dissertation, and composed and produced a show aimed at meeting the needs of this population; another, Nikki Moran, studied music as social interaction in India; instructor Michael Edwards specializes in musical composition algorithms through his adorably-named open source software, Slippery Chicken. I never realized academic music had such a wide scope, and I’m delighted to have discovered this.

And, for me, the course ended on a real high note.

On Monday, August 11, with my twitter feed full of the heartbreaking news of the death of Robin Williams and the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri compounding by the hour, leaving me awash in fresh anger and sorrow with every photo and video clip, I dove into Music Theory: Week 5, Cadences. I figured it would tie my mind in knots and not leave any space for angst. But it did so much more than that.

Not only was it the most musically-relevant lecture in the course (cadences that feel “done”, versus “not done”; examples of chord progressions from actual music from Vivaldi to the Beatles; the course could use a few more examples like this), the very last video ended with instructor (and Edinburgh City Organist) John Kitchen’s lovely rendition of Bach’s C-major prelude (the accompaniment to one of the two most frequently performed Ave Marias) on harpsichord. It was a gift, a little flight into that other place music can take us to, a light, airy, ethereal place that fills the soul and makes us maybe a little better able to face reality. It reminded me what music is about for me – not which triad is half-diminished or how many dotted sixteenth notes and eighth note tuplets fit into a crotchet (if nothing else, I’m becoming a bilingual non-musican) but what music generates in us.

Thank you, musicians, for so generously sharing your gift with those of us who are not so blessed.

Classical MOOC

Course: Greek and Roman Mythology
School: University of Pennsylvania through Coursera
Instructor: Peter Struck, PhD
 
Quote: We’re going to be reading in this class about monsters. We’re going to read about heroes. We’re going to read about marriages gone right, and wrong, family squabbles, massive architectonic, earth-changing wars…. But most of all what we’re going to be reading about is the question of what it means to be human. Sure gods and monsters and animals are in this, these stories. But what they’re mostly there to do is to help us focus on what Greek myths tend to be most interested in. And that is you and I, as members of a very definitive species, a unique group of organisms floating around on the surface of the earth, and trying to make our way between being born and dying. These stories give us a way to fill in all the stuff that comes between.

I don’t know what they put in the water at Penn, but someone ought to find out: this is the third Penn MOOC I’ve taken, and they’ve all been terrific. But – and here’s the odd thing – they’re all terrific in very different ways, for very different reasons. I highly recommend this for anyone who’s interested in looking at literary, linguistic, historical, and/or anthropological aspects of mythology.

Somehow I missed the whole mythology thing most kids go through. So many gods, so many stories, and they all blend together when I tried to learn more about them on my own: I once looked up Ariadne after encountering a literary reference, got tangled up in thirty other stories related to her, found each of those tangled up in thirty more, and I still don’t know if she’s the same as Arachne or not… Even worse, I could never tell the Greeks from the Romans on Jeopardy, which is downright embarrassing.

The format of the course was pretty standard MOOC – lectures, quiz, a written assignment, and three live Hangout sessions, plus the Discussion forums – and while in some classes this can be tedious, here it really worked. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because the lectures were terrific – they covered a broad range of topics, including details of language, literary structure and effect, historical references, sociocultural elements, and a variety of theories of myth, showing how various schools of thought (Functionalists, Structuralists, Freudians, etc.) might approach any individual work. Instructor Peter Struck brought us into the work itself by referring frequently how “we Greeks” might react to a particular theme of The Odyssey, or the experience we might have of viewing Oedipus Rex performed on the Greek stage. And, while I’d like to think I’m above being charmed by a pretty face and a pleasant manner, I suppose that played into it somewhere along the line. And if a pleasant manner sounds easy to pull off, check out how this is done – you try standing in a 3×3 box talking for 10 hours, see how engaging you are.

The other strength of the course was the discussion forums. This can vary from session to session, of course, but I think in this case, the lectures generated interesting questions and issues that led to great threads. There was the usual hysteria about the peer-assessment of the written assignment (having studied The Ikea Effect in Duke’s Irrational Behavior MOOC, I better understand why nearly everyone thinks their assignment was undergraded – except students I grade, because now I give everyone the top score unless it’s a really horrible essay, or it’s outright plagiarized, and I do my critiquing in the comments), but that’s always going to be the case. I learned a lot from the forums, from people who could answer questions about history and related literature, as well as from staff teaching assistants who could address issues of translation and origin.

The workload is a bit daunting. Early on, we’re advised to allow about five hours for reading each week; most of the time, I spent longer than that, partly from finding matching audio and written translation versions. But it paid off: Ian McKellen’s reading of the entire Odyssey, and a gripping 1957 performance of Oedipus Rex, were extraordinary. Not surprisingly those turned out to be my favorite works of the course, though I am also partial to the Homeric Hymn featuring Demeter. And Theogony was pretty cool, once I figured out what was going on thanks to a student video project I ran across on YouTube. While I appreciated Ovid far more after the lecture (being a fan of digression and all), I’m afraid the reading itself went over my head much of the time. I’d like to try it again some time, now that I have a roadmap.

I greatly enjoyed this course, I picked up some theoretical background of myth, some literary knowledge, and got to read some of the most ancient works of Western civilization. I’m probably going to take another Mythology course sometime.

And – my Jeopardy game has improved greatly. Is that any reason to take a MOOC? You bet it is.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?’”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.