Shades Of Words

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Ugly to Start With

On the road I have often passed little towns with fenced houses, some glossy and new, just as in magazine ads and some falling apart, as if they have seen decades of rain. I have often wondered about the lives of the people inside. On reading the opening story “The World Around Us” from John Cummings collection of short stories, I knew that I was going to find some answers and get a glimpse into small town America.

“Ugly to Start With” is a collection of interrelated stories that escapes being a novel simply because you can’t quite always connect the events, the people and the passing of time. The constants are our protagonist and narrator, a teenaged white boy, Jason and his home town of Harper Ferry.

I don’t usually read short stories and I am not a frequent reader of American fiction, however, I was pulled in from the first story. Cummings uses  the opening story “The World Around Us’ to pin the location of Harper’s Ferry not only geographically but also to  drive home the nature of the mundane existence of Jason’s boyhood. There is this really funny exchange of dialog in which Jason and his mother argue about the distance of Harper’s Ferry from Washington DC and whether that’s long enough to justify never visiting the capital. With “Two Tunes” we get a glimpse of Jason’s dysfunctional home which has its moments of redemption.

The rest of the stories we are introduced to some other characters in Harper’s Ferry that Jason or his family has had to deal with.  As a reader your heart often reaches out to Jason’s pitiful existence, but Cumming’s keeps the narrative light and does not get into philosophizing.

 “The Scratchboard Project” is another endearing story tackling adolescence love.  I like how Cumming’s describes Jason’s reaction into stepping for the first time into an African-American household, and his confusion and mumbling respect. Everything is new and weird, but only when he gets to know his classmate Ty better, does he realize that how similar and more human they both are in spite of the color of their skin.

It  may sound clichéd but my favorite story of the lot is “Ugly to Start with” which is the story of a cat which the family adopts.  Skinny Minnie  is beautiful and brings comfort to the family  but soon she falls sick and gets into fights into with other cats. As her usefulness wanes off so does the interest of the family . There was something about this story that was too close to the shallowness of human nature, that makes us want to look into our inner selves. I remember that I wanted to cry when I finished reading it

The story that I least enjoyed was “We never liked them anyway”. It’s pivotal in the way that it exposes the relationship between Jason’s parents but it does refer to his precarious and non-existent circle of friends and the danger of gossips of small town. I just find that distasteful.

Cumming’s writing is fluid. The language is simple, effective and potent. Some of the chapters are really well written. I am not a one who usually judges a book by it’s cover, but there is something very displeasing about the cover art of “Ugly to Start With”.  It’s as if it’s incomplete and if I were to see this in a store or even in an online book store I would skip it unless someone had told me that  I must read it.


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The Awakening

The Awakening is story of Edna Pontelier, a terribly bored house wife. She has unquestioningly followed the path defined for her sex. She married young probably for convenience, went on to have two beautiful children and at the ripe young age of twenty-eight she has found that she does not have anything to live for.

That is until she meets Robert LeBraun, the handsome and kind son of their lodge owner at Grand Isle. She begins to feel the hints of infatuation which bring along with it other realizations about her life, marriage and physical desires.

More than anything she feels trapped by her marriage and children – she feels that she deserves more from life but it’s being kept from her. Her husband is a very angular man for whom marriage is something to be endured and not enjoyed. The there are the children. She loves her children because they are her flesh and blood and they are beautiful, but she feels no more than a sense of duty towards them.

The book is titled “The Awakening” but I believe that there are a series of awakenings that happen to Edna as she pushes her boundaries of being a woman in nineteenth century respectable society. The first pivotal moment is when she goes swimming by herself, goes farther than intended and is scared out of her wits. This is the “spreading out her wings” moment when she realizes that she can do something by herself and for herself.

The real defining them of the book is captured in what Edna tells Robert, when Robert confesses his love for him – “You have been a very, very foolish boy wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr.Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”

Edna has clearly come on her own. She loves Robert but she loves herself more. She has finally found the freedom of mind and body that she was striving for and she believed that Robert would understand that. But Robert, like her husband fails her. He wants to define in her a relationship that he understands and is conventional.  Edna’s realizes that she may have found the freedom that she wanted but not the peace and her solution to it is both tragic and fitting.

Reading The Awakening in 2012 is no shocker. Women all over the world are realizing every day that there are not committed to live life in a certain way. They can choose who they want to be and whom they want to be with. However, when published in 1899, Chopin’s novel was like a bucket of cold water thrown on people’s heads. She was a fairly regular regional writer, penning short stories for local magazines. The Awakening would have surely pushed people to think out of the comfort zones. I was reading about Chopin and learned that she was widowed at 32. She ran her husband’s business, took care of her children and was known as an outrageous flirt. I wonder how much of her was in Edna and how many challenges she faced being a single mom.

PS: I also happened to watch the movie version of the book starring Kelly McGillis. I really did like the cinematography but apart from I thought the performances were etchy.  I am not sure this was exactly the best representation.

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The End of the Affair

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses a moment of experience from which to look ahead” 

Isn’t that a beautiful starting?  I think I fell head over heels in love with the book the minute I read it.  However, as it often happens, it was easier to fall in love than to stay in love.

The novel is as the title explains the deconstruction of the end of a relationship. Maurice Bendrix, a writer who has not quite met the commercial success, spends a good time obsessing over why the love of his life, Sarah, has abandoned him.

Sarah is unhappily married to Henry Miles. Maurice is besotted with her, and both of them start on a whirlwind romance during the heights of war, until one day when Maurice’s apartment is bombed. Both survive but not the relationship. Maurice does not know why, all he knows that Susan starts avoiding him and moves away from his life.  A chance encounter with Henry, brings back all the rage and pain of the past, and when he meets Sarah he realized that she has found a new love. A jealous obsession takes hold of him. Very soon he realizes that Sarah has discovered religion and it’s God that’s keeping them apart.

In essence, The End of the Affair is beautiful love story. There are moments where your heart just reaches out to the desperate situation that Maurice and Sarah in.

Maurice is the most believable character in the book. Grahame’s description of an obsessed and jilted lover are touching and painful.  Sarah is the more enigmatic character and it’s difficult to pin her down. I am not a religious person and though I understood her reasons to turn to God I could not understand her Catholic guilt. Having been a serial adulteress, I find it strange that she has the courage to cheat, but not leave her husband and walk out an unhappy marriage.

I think my fundamental problem with the novel was the theme of religion. I am not a religious person and though I believe in God, he generally does not interfere with my day-to-day living. Neither is Maurice, so when he discovers that what is keeping Sarah away from him is God he is understandably devastated. I think Sarah is very confused woman. On one hand she is racked with the guilt of cheating on Henry, but on the other she is deeply in love with Maurice. She ardently believes that she owes a debt to God for Maurice’s life, and she thinks God can help her find a solution to this. It’s at this point where I find Sarah’s motivation unclear. Sometimes I just wanted to yell at her – “Get with him already”

The writing is impeccable and something that I have come to expect from Greene.  He can put so much misery in a sentence and yet make you smile at the end of it. Greene’s The End of the Affair is dedicated to C. That is probably a hint to the autobiographical nature of the work, for C is none other than “Lady Catherine Watson” with whom Greene had an affair, but I don’t know if Greene was as miserable with Lady C as Maurice was with Sarah.