Archive for March, 2015

Dorothy Parker Stories / Dorothy Parker

This book collects twenty-four of Dorothy Parker’s best-known stories. It was my first introduction to her work. Parker began her career as a writer for Vogue magazine in 1918, and she continued to write into the 1960s. The bulk of the stories in this collection were written in the decade following World War I. She has a unique writing style that features rapid, realistic dialogue, often presenting just one side of the conversation. Words fly like the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire across the page. While the stories are varied subject-wise, they tend to center around the often-rocky relationships between women and men, told usually from the female’s perspective. Parker is well known for wit and satire in her writing, and this collection highlights these elements. But she also captures strong human emotions that make the stories poignant as well. Her characters are mostly drawn from the upper class, and feature a world where the housewife remains at home and the husband heads into the city to toil in an ill-defined job. I found all of the stories to be entertaining, but a number of them stand out of the pack. There is the unsettling Mr. Durant that tells a husband’s nonchalant account of his affair with a secretary at his workplace and the abortion he forces upon her. Big Blonde is the sad tale of a woman’s slow descent into alcoholism and depression as the kept woman of a sugar daddy. The Waltz recounts a woman’s thoughts when dragged out onto the dance floor by a clumsy, unwanted suitor. While there is a generous amount of humor in these stories, they also convey deep insight into the human psyche. More importantly, the issues addressed are still relevant today. This collection makes for a wonderful introduction to both the “roaring Twenties” and to Parker’s remarkable talent as an author.

Three Peas In The Same Pod

Three peas in the same pod,
with husbands buried
and children residing far away,
they are a marriage.

The middle one, a conductor,
completes the circuit
that allows for conversation.
She is their hearing aid.

Dressed for a past season,
gabbing widows
are rarely paid attention to.
But gossip they must.

Age has become a snug fit.
Swollen with memories,
anticipating the stem’s snap,
they have grown close.

Three peas, hardened to seed,
overly rouged, know
only death hungers for them.
Yet, they blush like brides.


I have never seen coots land
or take to the air;
suddenly, they are just there,
nervous and skittish,
clumped into a black bloom.
At both ends of winter,
an entire community of them,
joined at the hip,
uses the lake and its bay as
a fueling station.
Like bobbers on the surface,
one after another
they disappear, as if gulped
from underneath,
and their absence persists
until the water heals.
Never exposing a glimpse
of attached wing,
these bookends of winter
can always be
counted on to pop up again.

A Ship Made Of Paper / Scott Spencer

After a violent encounter in New York City, the book’s protagonist, Daniel Emerson, returns to the small Hudson River town where he grew up. Accompanied by Kate Ellis, his long-time girlfriend, and her young daughter, he moves into his childhood home and opens a small law practice. The daughter, Ruby, is a child Daniel loves dearly. His relationship with Kate is more complicated. She is a published author with one successful novel to her credit, but is suffering writer’s block with a second. To support herself (and Daniel to a certain extent), she has turned her artistic attention to the O. J. Simpson trial that is taking place at the time, writing numerous articles for magazines that assert his guilt in the murder of a girlfriend. Kate has also begun to drink too much, and this affects the couple’s relationship. Daniel, in the meantime, has become infatuated with Iris Davenport, a black woman whose son is Ruby’s best friend. Tackling the emotionally charged topic of race, Spencer is to be commended for attempting to describe an interracial relationship. Unfortunately, he is far too clumsy and obvious in setting the stage for the story’s key turning points. On the night that Daniel and Iris finally declare their interest in each other, a freak October snow storm is taking place, and throughout the city, trees are noisily crashing to the ground from the weight of the accumulation. When Daniel accidently injures Iris’ husband, it occurs when both men are lost in the ruins of a forest destroyed by the storm. Even the gun that is introduced into the hands of Ruby and her best friend seems totally staged for effect. Spencer does a good job of capturing the highs and lows of Iris and Daniel’s forbidden relationship, with its intense desire and crippling guilt for the partners they are betraying. And he has written a story that keeps the reader’s interest. But his heavy handedness left me feeling manipulated. In the end, this interracial relationship simply seemed too contrived to ring true, despite its cast of sympathetic characters.

The Hired Man / Aminatta Forna

I read a memoir by Aminatta Forna a number of years ago and I was impressed with her first published work. The Devil That Danced On Water dealt with the country where she spent most of her childhood, Sierra Leone. It focused on her father, a physician, who became active in politics and later served in the government as a financial minister. After he resigned from office, citing political violence and rampant corruption, her father was arrested for treason and later hanged. While not set in Africa, The Hired Man, a novel, covers much the same territory. It, too, explores the grudges and greed that emerge in the course of civil unrest. Gost is a Croatian village in a mountainous, undeveloped region of the country. Duro Kolak is a lifetime resident of the village, a loner who does odd jobs and hunts to keep food on his table. His closest companions are the two dogs who assist him in the latter endeavor. He is the story’s narrator and a person I think most readers will take an instant liking to. One day he notices a strange car in the area and is told foreigners have moved into a house close to his own. This place, we later learn, is dear to his heart. The new residents are a middle aged British woman, named Laura, and her two adolescent children. He introduces himself and quickly is hired to help repair their summer cottage. His relationship with this family soon grows into friendship, and it provides a necessary ingredient of tenderness to this story. The arrival of these new inhabitants into this particular house rouses unpleasant memories in many of the locals. In bits and pieces, Duro’s narration begins to reveal the secrets of his village. In passing, he mentions that at one time the place had two bakeries but now only has only one, that many stores have been shuttered and houses abandoned, and the Serbian Orthodox church is no longer open. But the whole truth about Gost is not revealed until the book’s concluding chapters. Forna is a fantastic storyteller and she has created a gripping novel that kept me enthralled from page one. She masterfully evokes the personality of a town afflicted with posttraumatic stress following Croatia’s civil war. The book chronicles the lingering tension, guilt and hidden scars the inhabitants refuse to acknowledge. Forna has received critical acclaim for The Hired Man and I can only add my voice to the chorus. It is a novel that deserves to be better known

Come April

When opening a window again come April
one sees on its ledge
the littered remains from last October’s
huddled inhabitants,
those relics from a summer almost forgotten.
Tucked among dusty leaves,
paper thin and brittle, perfectly preserved,
the wasp shares its
common grave with a moth about to turn
into a puff of smoke
now that it has finally embraced the light.
Conserved and numerous,
like pawns randomly toppled on their sides
across a chessboard,
flies of all sizes feign readiness to awaken.
Occasionally, there will be
a spider, too, with eight legs neatly folded,
but usually, just a web,
its winding-sheet the only skeleton left.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
infused with a fresh appetite for life,
their incurious cousins,
paying no heed, think only to repopulate.

Ballad Of An Early Riser

Time has its own internal clock,
speeding ahead or slowing,
dictated by the gravitational tug
of mood and circumstance,
and, as every early bird knows,
it is less attentive when
the earth seems poised motionless
between a maze of stars
and day’s first inquisitive song.

Again, I tiptoe down the stairs
so as not to disturb that
great bird into startled flight,
in hopes of discovering,
before a dormant breeze stirs
dawn’s first faint blush
with the rushed whirr of wings,
an enchanted moment,
reluctant to welcome the next.

The Goldfinch / Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is a novel that will evoke a strong reaction in readers. They may be either dazzled by Tartt’s verbosity or completely put off by it. Even more likely, they will experience both emotions. This was certainly my reaction, especially in the book’s early chapters. Containing elements of tragedy, angst, and self-deprecating musing, it also has an escalating tension that finally erupts into thriller action territory. With its detailed descriptions, this novel has everything but the kitchen sink. One cannot help but wonder whether, like Charles Dickens, Tartt was being paid by the word. Yet once I got used to the author’s occasional plodding storytelling, with its detours and overabundance of detail, I found myself eager to read on.

Theodore “Theo” Decker tells the story in retrospective first-person narration. As the book opens, he is a thirteen-year-old boy living in New York City with his mother. His father, an alcoholic and a gambler, had walked out on the family a year before. In the first chapter, Theo and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, which includes her favorite painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch. This painting proves to be the story’s MacGuffin, the thread that stitches together the book’s circuitous plot. While inside the museum, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and numerous others. Miraculously, Theo, not seriously injured, encounters in the rubble an old, dying man who gives him a ring and a mysterious message. Believing it has something to do with The Goldfinch, Theo takes the painting, and unseen, escapes from the building. And thus the story is set in motion.

It carries the reader through the next eight plus years of Theo’s life, as he goes from traumatized teenager to a young adult haunted by guilt, sadness, and posttraumatic stress. In order to cope, he develops a serious drug habit. Set in three very different cities, New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, Tartt vividly captures their milieux on the page. In the case of New York City, her description is so granular that I felt overwhelmed at times. Theo and the other key characters in this book are not easy to like. Self-absorbed, drug addled, and living a life of privilege, most are presented as narcissistic and childish. Nonetheless, once the story drew me into its meandering maze, I was hooked. As I said, it is a novel that will leave a good many feeling conflicted over its merits. But The Goldfinch is the kind of book that, warts and all, still manages to embed itself into a reader’s long-term memory.


In blackest night, sleep recalls
what death has stolen.
We come so close to reuniting.
I often sense that you
were in the room just before me.
On the kitchen counter,
hurried, scribbled notes say sorry,
you had to run.
I turn my head and double check
only to find someone
else is wearing your perfume.
At so many parties,
there are those near misses;
separated by a crowd,
you always seem to be heading
out another door.
Engagements never transpire.
My answering machine
blinks your name, but as usual,
you’ve left no message.
Your absence, a dogged presence
behind closed eyes.
Again, I wake on my way to you.