A Story About Going Home

…and What That Means

Home is or can be so many different things. It can be a place, a memory, or an idea. Going home is a recurring trope in literature (sometimes done well and sometimes done poorly). Ron Rash’s Saints at the River does a fine job of exploring this trope on a few levels.

Saints at the River by Ron Rash

Maggie Glenn, the protagonist of the novel, returns to her home town to cover a story for the newspaper she works for. Rash uses Maggie’s return to a home she left ten years ago as a means to explore the idea of home and what it means to go home again. For Maggie going home means coming to terms with family and an ex-boyfriend. It also means trying to understand where she stands with the townspeople she grew up with and the town itself. One could also argue that the river at the center of the novel is a symbol for Eden (I’d like to hear what people who read the book think of this) and whether or not a person can ever return to such a paradise once he/she leaves.

Home is so many different things to so many people. Ron Rash’s Saints at the River is a well crafted character study that explores going home and how the place, the memories, and the ideas of home have a lasting impact.

-K-

Saints at the River (2004) by Ron Rash

Interpretations, Intentions, and Chances

“The Road Not Taken” and Taking a Chance

The new year brings resolutions, promises, commitments, and a wide variety of interpretations, intentions, and chances that can be ignored, compromised, and broken. If you are still with me after that long first sentence you may be wondering what a Robert Frost poem has to do with taking a chance? The answer may not be as obvious as you think (that is if you are familiar with the poem and its common interpretation).

Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is pretty much a high school standard. I figure it is a pretty slim percentage of students who got through twelve years of public education and didn’t read Frost’s poem and/or saw it on some poster in an English teacher’s classroom (or multiple classrooms). Various views argue the poem is ‘about’ pursuing dreams, being an individual, and taking a chance on the road less traveled. But what was the author’s intention when writing the poem? According to Frost the poem is “tricky” and the two roads that are so important to the poem’s message are “really about the same.”

A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost

As the title of this post implies I could get into a conversation about author’s intentions versus readers’ interpretations, but that is the stuff of another post. I will say both should be given consideration when criticizing a piece of literature. What I want to spend a few lines discussing is the idea of taking a chance. Taking a chance “made all the difference” as some critical interpretations argue, or taking a chance may not really change one’s life as Frost implies. What is important to realize is regardless of the outcome an individual must decide to take a chance.

We live our lives with certain intentions. We interpret the events of our lives in various ways. But the intentions and interpretations fall flat without first taking a chance. Maybe taking a chance won’t change our lives but we’ll never know unless we take it.

-K-

A Collection of Poems (2015) by Robert Frost

Loneliness as a Place

and a State of Mind

Are the loneliest places of our own creation? In a Lonely Place explores this question with classic noir style. Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, is a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t written a hit in a while. This artistic slump can be viewed as the result of choices Dix has made, choices that have not only prevented Dix from writing but have also created both a mental and physical world of loneliness.

In a Lonely Place

As the movie opens we meet Dixon Steele and find a man on edge, a man ready to fight, and a man who lives a lonely sort of life. As the movie progresses we get to know Dix and learn he is man who drinks too much, a man who chooses not to address his anger issues, and a man who is more concerned with his pursuit of fame than developing a healthy relationship. This last point is foreshadowed early in the movie when Dix says, “There is no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.” Under the direction of Nicholas Ray, Bogart’s Dixon Steele is a classic noir protagonist. He is man who is flawed from the first frame to the last. Dixon Steele is a man whose choices (both knowingly and unknowingly) create a world of loneliness and fatalism that he cannot escape.

Nicholas Ray’s direction creates an atmosphere of loneliness, not only for the protagonist but for those who enter his life as well. Bogart’s portrayal of Dixon Steele, the lonely writer, is incredible. The story is a study of loneliness and its impact on those it touches. Whether you are a fan of noir movies, Humphrey Bogart, the psychology of loneliness, or any combination of the three In a Lonely Place is worth a watch.

-K-

In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Where is Your Faith?

“Young Goodman Brown” and Belonging

To what extent are people willing to go to belong? Do some put their faith into belonging or are they willing to give up their faith to belong? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is a look at faith and the desire to belong.

Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories

Humans are social creatures and several millennia of conditioning has developed a strong desire to belong to something larger than oneself. But that desire to belong may, at times, be contrary to what one believes. Goodman Brown , the protagonist, finds himself facing such a dilemma. Brown must decide where to place his faith (you’ll find Faith is a key element to the story if you haven’t read it yet). Does Brown make a deal with the Devil where, “…the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.” or does Brown hold true to what he believes? Brown knows that whatever his choice is there will be life long consequences and his faith (or Faith) will never be the same.

The desire to belong and to be part of a group is a common desire for most people. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” addresses this desire through a pretty explicit bit of symbolism, Faith. A take away for readers is to ask where do we put our faith? Do we put our faith in what we believe or do we give up our faith and make a deal with the Devil in order to belong, to be part of some special club?

-K-

Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories (1992/1884) by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

From Lust to Warning Signs to Lasting Love

Eilen Jewell’s Queen of the Minor Key

In an age of streaming it’s all too easy to skip from song to song, album to album, and artist to artist. How many of us curate stacks of digital playlists for various moods and occasions that we hardly listen to (makes me wonder how many mix tapes I made way back when)? I do listen to albums from first song to last when I’m in a certain mood or situation and yesterday was one such situation. I drove several hundred miles over several hours by myself (my cat, Dr. Loomis, was with me but he wasn’t in a talkative mood). Instead of skipping from song to album to artist I opted to give some albums a full listen. One of those albums was Queen of the Minor Key.

Queen of the Minor Key by Eilen Jewell

I’ve listened to this album as a whole several times and the individual songs many more times, but driving along I57 with nothing but Illinois farmland to keep me company (Dr. Loomis was sleeping) allowed for a new listening experience. Jewell’s album is a fast paced ride through a well written collection of relationship songs that vary in story and nuance. Whether you want to listen to song about young lust, a relationship gone wrong, longing for a lost love, or lasting love Queen of the Minor Key has a song for you, and a few others too. Jewell’s ability to convey a love story in around the four minute mark with a bluesy/country sound makes for a fun listening experience. The stand outs for me are “I Remember You,” “Warning Signs,” “Bang Bang Bang,” and “Home to Me.” Of course they are all good and if you are in the mood to listen to and album first to last then cue up Queen of the Minor Key.

-K-

Queen of the Minor Key (2011) by Eilen Jewell.

“All Animals Are Equal”

Animal Farm and Warning Signs

Everybody loves 1984. Everybody quotes 1984. Everybody says we are living in 1984. Well, maybe not everybody but sweeping generalizations tend to get attention. There is one thing that most every reader may agree on, 1984 tends to overshadow another Orwell book that is in the same vein, Animal Farm.

Animal Farm is a fan favorite for many readers and it boasts a long list of positive critical reviews but it doesn’t get the attention 1984 does. I wonder if this is due to the novella’s length (many people equate long book with good book), its allegorical structure, or that it doesn’t seem as urgent or isn’t as dystopian as 1984? Maybe its that Animal Farm is a little too straight forward in its storytelling. Orwell is not to subtle in his use of foreshadowing throughout the novella. Animal Farm is loaded with warning signs (hell, the commandments should be written in bright yellows and reds). Readers know bad things are bound to happen and all we can do is go along for the ride.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

1984 may get a lot more glory but that shouldn’t keep you from checking out Animal Farm. If you are looking for something relatively short that will have you thinking long after the last page and is as relevant today as it was when it was published give this Orwell novella a read.

-K-

Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell

Where The Dead Speak

The Voices of The Refrigerator Monologues

First, it is important to know that this book is not simply fan service. It is not just some variation of comic book storytelling. This book is an informative and entertaining look at the refrigerated woman comic book trope (the trope isn’t specific to comics but author’s focus is).

If you are like me and have more than a passing interest in comic books you will find The Refrigerator Monologues worth the read. Catherynne Valente gives voice to six female comic book characters (these are characters most fans will notice) who came to untimely ends. Their deaths were, in some respects, simple plot points used to develop a larger story line, but Valente gives each of these characters her own post mortem monologue. These six women speak of their lives, deaths, and impact on the comic’s larger story. In doing this Valente makes interesting points concerning the refrigerated woman trope that are worth further discussion (because one of the many things we comic book geeks love is a good discussion).

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

The Refrigerator Monologues is a great read for those of us who grew up with comic booksand recognize the names Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, and Karen Paige (pick up the book if you want to know the other three). If your interest in comic books goes deeper than word bubbles and four color panels then check out Valente’s book.

-K-

The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) by Catherynne M. Valente.

Getting Over is Not Getting By

James Joyce’s “Two Gallants”

Hard times often call for tough decisions, but the decision to use another person is not getting by, it’s getting over. James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants” centers on two individuals who use others for their personal gain. The characters of Lenehan and Corley appear to move through life by getting over on those around them without much thought to how their actions impact others.

Dubliners by James Joyce

Joyce’s Dubliners is an incredible study of a city and those who inhabit it. “Two Gallants” follows Lenehan, a nondescript man of middle age, as he kills time wandering around Dublin waiting for his friend Corley to, “pull it off.” The reader is allowed into Lenehan’s thoughts as he ponders his current state and how he is living his life (I won’t spoil it for you, but Joyce’s use of the epiphany is subtle here). We aren’t allowed into Corley’s inner thoughts but his words and actions clearly define the type of person he is.

Lenehan and Corley are men who have become so accustomed to using others for their own gain they barely think of it. They may tell themselves that they are getting by in a tough world but in reality they are simply getting over on an innocent victim. “Two Gallants” is a good read for anyone interested in the motives and means of those who use others for personal gain.

-K-

“Two Gallants” from Dubliners by James Joyce.

The Grind of Getting By

John Huston’s Fat City

What is your blood and sweat worth? This is the question Bill Tully, a boxer, asks his manager in Fat City. John Huston’s 1972 movie tackles a few serious topics, one of which is what it means and what it takes to get by.

Fat City

Fat City is approaching fifty years old and it definatley has the look and feel of the early 70s, but the story (I am reluctant to use words such as theme and message) is as relevant today as it was when it premiered. The characters struggle with the everydayness of work, relationships, and a desire to do more with their lives than simply get by. The movie is a slow paced character study that peels back the layers of a man’s life and examines his efforts to do more and be more.

The movie has a collection of characters who struggle to get by, from the main character Bill Tully, Bill’s buddy Ernie, and Bill’s opponent Lucero. Without giving too much away there is a scene in the movie where Lucero walks out of the arena after the fight that is itself a study in getting by. Fat City is worth a watch if you are interested in a character study in getting by.

-K-

Fat City (1972) with Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. Directed by John Huston.

Stereotypes and Selling Out

Don Lee and Labels

What connections can be made between stereotypes and selling out? I read Don Lee’s short story “Reenactments” yesterday, and it has me thinking about the ramifications of being labeled a stereotype and how that label can lead to accusations and/or feelings of selling out.

The protagonist of Lee’s story is Alan Kwan, an aging Hollywood actor known for primarily for his action roles. He has landed the largest role of his career in a standard action shoot ‘em up movie that has sequel potential which would secure a recurring role and guaranteed work. Unfortunately the script plays to several stereotypes including Alan’s role as an Asian hit man. This is not he first time Alan has dealt with stereotypes during his career. He changed his name to Alan Kwan from Alain Kweon years ago to improve job prospects.

“Reenactments” by Don Lee

What distinguishes Alan’s current situation from previous experiences with stereotypes is that now fellow actors and crew expect Alan to respond to the stereotypes. Alan’s dilemma is whether to call out the stereotypes he and others have been labeled at the risk of losing future work or to remain quiet. Lee’s protagonist must grapple with not only how others will view him but also how he will view himself.

If you are looking for a short piece of fiction that addresses stereotypes and the personal ramifications that may accompany selling out then Don Lee’s “Reenactments” is worth a read.

-K-

“Reenactments” by Don Lee. One Story Issue #275

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