Friday, February 27, 2009

Given Her History/Eleven On Top

Given Her History April –May is a young girl who found herself, and her brother's dog Jake, abandoned in a ditch after her parents and her youngest brother were killed in a fire. She assumed her brother Billy had left her there before he fled town. She was found by members of the very small community, who convinced a reluctant teacher and her husband to take her and the dog in. Juris, a well respected figure in town, was kind to her and brought her clothes. He asked here where her older brother Billy went. It was widely believed that he set the fire and would return one day for April-May and the dog Jake. April-May was distrustful of all those in the community. They had never been friendly to her transient family. Her father was cruel and abusive. They were very poor and even had no running water. This set her apart socially from the rest of the small community. April-May knew that the teacher did not want her living with them. After the husband died, Vivian, an elderly long standing community member took them in. She seemed to understand April-May's difficulty relating to people and always communicated to her by talking to the dog. This seemed to open up a little crack in April-Mays veneer. She had times of laughing or smiling, and even had fun rebuilding a burnt-out rabbit hutch that Vivian had to make a playhouse. Throughout the story April-May had a few flashbacks to her life with her family. It gave the effect that she was working through some of her past, but there were only a few flashbacks. So it also gave the effect that she was trying to bury her past. she always thought Billy would returns for her and seemed to look forward to it, although he was mean to her when they lived at home. After two years, he returns, and tries to barge in on Vivian and intimidate her. Jake is going crazy. Vivian ends up shooting Billy. April-May looks at Jake and realized he was her protector, not Billy.

This story was sad and a commentary on how abuse can destroy lives. I also chronicled the isolation April-May felt from the community due to her station in life, her families past and their perceptions of her. Even the school teacher refused to teach school if she attended. Although the matriarch, Vivian, took her in, the community still did not accept her. I tried to think of comparison's with Eleven on Top. The only comparison that I see is that Vivian was a strong women who did what she thought was right for the girl and her dog. She also was not intimidated by Billy. The moods of both stories were sharp contrasts. Eleven on Top was largely fun and light, even with some gruesome crimes. It seemed a little surreal. Given Her History seemed all too realistic and sad. A commentary on the darker side of society. Eleven on Top was a good length. I think if it was longer it would have become to tedious, but if shorter would have lost the flow. Given Her History was fine as it was, but also could have been developed further and explained more of the past, where Billy went, why Vivian took in April-May, and what happened after Billy died. I enjoyed Eleven on Top more this week. I needed something light and happy to read.

So far I have read short stories by two women and two men. Am I being stereotypical in my thinking that women tend to explore feelings and emotions more than men? or at least in a different way? It seems like the men approach the stories in more direct and factual ways. When they address feelings it is quick and to the point, or inferred. The women tend to flesh out the emotional side of the story a little more.

Given Her History was a good story as far as the writing goes. I did not like it because it was too dark and sad for me. But the writing was good and the pace was fine. I did wonder what would happen when Billy came back, but expected a bad confrontation in which April-May might be harmed, so I was suprised at the ending.

I am realizing that short mystery stories are entirely different than what I would have expected. I also seems like a lot of good mysteries are dark and gloomy, because crime is dark and gloomy of course. That is why I think it is good, as a mystery lover, to have lighter stories now and then like Eleven on Top. Something to read when I want a puzzle, but not a social commentary or depressing crimes.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Guardian Angel/The Hour When the Ship comes in

I read The Hour When the Ship Comes in this week. The story starts out with the sentence, "One good deed...One good deed is all it takes to get a man killed. " Yancy, the man in question, was a crook. During the committment of a crime, which was supposed to be non-violent, things went wrong with his partners, and he made a splint second choice. The "one good deed" The rest of the story moved quickly, and recounted his dying journey from the crime scene to a the Queen Mary, a ship on the shore. His thoughts moved quickly and sometimes randomly from the events of the crime, to his surroundings, to his past, to his goal. Through the meanderings of his mind the reader could get an idea of his character. A little insight was given into the character of his two partners in crime, but they were not the focus. The story really was just about Yancy. There were no outside plots. Guardian Angel had multiple side plots that eventually connected to the main crime. There were other principle people in the story other than the V.I, the investigator, such as the neighbor Mr. Contreras, the Pinchea's and Lottie. Their characters and relationships were explored and developed in the novel.

The Hour When the Ship Comes in set a choppy pace. Sentence length varied from short to rambling. This set the tone of a dying many exerting physical effort to get to his destination, and trying to resolve in his mind how he came to his current state. It was easy to feel that he was becoming weaker, and short of breath. The length of a short story made this possible. If this story was a subplot in a novel, it may have been effective, but would have probably lost some impact in the overall plot. Guardian Angel was long, maybe in some places a little too draggy, but needed the length to flesh out the various subplots, explore the characters of various people, and connect all the pieces of the puzzle. This would not have worked in a short story. The short story was okay. I can't say I didn't like it, but there was no detective, no mystery other than what may have been a mystery to Yancy himself when he was exploring his mind. I enjoyed Guardian Angel. It was long, but kept my attention.

I really can't say I notice much of a difference in the short stories I have read based on the author's gender. There just isn't much time to really develop personalities of characters and interactions. In the novels, there is more opportunities to develop characters and plots which may reflect the authors gender.

The Hour When the Ship Comes in did not challenge me. I knew right away what the outcome would be. It did not seem like a mystery to me. I think the three short stories I have read really seem like crime stories, rather than mysteries.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Proof of God/Black Betty

I guess I always pick stories based on the first sentence or two. Proof of God sounded interesting, It was set in Kentucky and the story began when a 16 year old, Simon, was given his first car by his father. The story went on to describe the father as a man who was very concerned about what others thought of him. Prestige was important. He owned his own business, a small chain of furniture stores. The furniture looked good on the outside, but was cheaply madewith veneer and chipped wood. The father had big expectations for Simon, and wanted him to go to college. If Simon met his expectations, he could work for his dad. Simon was not that interested. Simon was quiet without many friends. Right after he got his car, he received some attention from some popular football players. They went out and appeared to have a good time. Simon came home with mixed feelings of "joy and torture all at once". The next morning Simon's dad found the car defaced with "fag" painted all over it. His father was upset with him for the ruin of the car, but Simon deflected the anger by alluding to jealousy of the boys for Simon's Corvette. His father seemed happy about that. Simon's mother was described as a housekeeper who catered to her husband and son. She cooked and cleaned, and tried hard to keep everything happy all the time. Simon remembered her lovely singing voice, and she often would sing when working. In the story, nothing was mentioned about either parent talking to Simon about how the incident affected him. His dad seemed concerned to mainatain the propsperous image. His mom seemed to have her head in the sand. Simon during a reflective time, mentioned in the story that he knew his mother was the only one who ever really loved him. The story skipped to his college days. Simon struggled with his sexuality. He met a friend, Marty and they became close. Simon did not tell Marty how he felt. They did not socialize much outside of themselves. At one point Marty told Simon he needed to get out more. He convinced him to go to a party. While there they met a girl named Fish. Marty slept with her, which upset Simon. Later Marty realized that Simon had never been with a girl. He arranged for them to go to Fish's dorm room. During the course of the night, after smoking weed, Marty had sex with Fish, then encouraged Simon to take a turn. Simon did not want to, but did not want to reveal his feelings. He tried to fake it. Fish began screaming and in the end a murder was committed. Simon was afraid Marty would betray him, in the end Simon betrayed Marty. Simon told his dad who helped him cover up the incident and maintain his innocence. Simon did not ever real his sexuality.
Both Black Betty and Proof of God dealt with issues of stereotype and prejudice. Black Betty covered many areas, including race, social standing, culture and gender. Proof of God covered gender, culture and social standing. In Black Betty the issues were obvious to everyone involved. There was direct confrontation and no hiding. Everyone knew who was black or white, rich or poor and what the social standing and expectations were. There was one instance where this was not true. Detective Lynx was a white man married to a black women. Easy was surprised by this. It was not a hidden fact, just not brought up by Lynx. In Proof of God, it seemed that everyone had their head in the sand. Simon never openly discussed his conflict with his sexuality. He let his father believe it was okay by mentioning the sexual encounter with Fish as though it was a normal college boy thing. His mom was not mentioned much, but kept her head in the sand. His father even fooled himself about his business and level of prestige, by thinking his furniture was viewed as high quality by others. I believe the veneered furniture over the chip board was representative of the way the characters all lived their lives. There were sexual crimes in both the novel and the short story. Both Fish and Betty were treated like possessions, Betty by Mr. Cain, and Fish by both boys. However in Black Betty, Betty also treated men like possessions. I thought the novel was a good length. All the time was needed to tell the story, but it did not drag out or suddenly end. I liked this novel. I did not like the short story. I was ready for it to be over. I thought it was a little draggy in the middle. It was depressing and no one came out victorious, except to an extend Marty who accepted responsibility.
The author of Proof of God was Holly Goddard Jones. She alluded to the plight of the oppressed housewife who gave up her talent and dreams to stay at home, maybe more than a man would. A man may have made the father a little harder on Simon in the end.

I have to say that Black Betty made me had an affect on my behavior. I work part time in a nursing home as a therapist. There is an elderly black man, who suffered a severe stroke a long time ago. His side is contracted, he can barely move one arm, and he can't speak legibly. His mind is very alert. He is receiving therapy to help him move his arms and legs. He has been yelling out and trying to jerk away from all the therapist, including me. After reading the novel, I thought about his age and his likely history with white people. I thought of the distrust and fear felt by Easy when he felt helpless before the white policemen. So I spent extra time talking to this gentleman. I called him Mr. ___ rather than by his namfirst name, and tried to show him some extra respect. I went extra slow, and explained each step, asking permission before I went on. In the end, we had a good session and he even smiled at me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mulholland Dive/The Maltese Falcon
The opening sentence of Mulholland Dive grabbed my attention right away. Flashing police lights and emergency vehicles lined on a highway are sights I see all too many times. The description pulled me into the story right away. I liked the way the storyline moved along quickly and directly. There was enough professional “lingo” to make me feel like the police and detective were competent professionals, but not so much as to lose me and make me not care. I had never her of a reconstructionist, so I enjoyed learning a little about Detective Clewiston's job and the technology he used to figure out an accident scene. Did I mention the description of the surroundings? I almost felt as if I were standing on the hill, and feeling a night breeze blow by.
In this short story, Michael Connelly did a good job of developing the character of Detective Clewiston. It was easy to see that he was intelligent, precise, meticulous and to the point. He didn't waste any time. This was reflected in the way he approached the accident scene, and made his analysis of the events. This was also reflected in the way he called the unnamed women, wife of the deceased and began his blackmailing scheme. He was intelligent, precise, meticulous and to the point. And coldly evil. It was unexpected, yet, not shocking. Somehow his crime could fit with his character. The other people in the story were small players in the story. He did not really elaborate on their personalities, but it was not necessary to the story. In the novel, The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett spent a lot of time developing the detective, Sam Spade. He was intelligent, devious, thoughtful, and took his time to ferret out information from all sources. He liked to keep those around him guessing, and only shared information as would suit or forward his purpose. Hammett also took time to develop the characters of other key players, including Gutman, Miss Wonderly/O'Shaughness/LeBlanc, Cairo and the police officers. This was important to the novel to increase the complexity of the interactions, and increase the intrigue of the mystery. Both stories involved blackmail and murder. In the short story, the detective had a peaceable working relationship with the police. In the novel, the detective had an almost hostile relationship with the police, that even became physical at times. Mulholland Dive moved along swiftly, and was to the point, even with it's surprising ending. The Maltese Falcon was circuitous, full of twists and turns that in the end left you dizzy, but satisfied. Mulholland Dive took place on Mulholland Drive. The Maltese Falcon took the reader all over the city, into the character's private dwellings and offices, and in public places. Both had the themes of deception, basic to all murder mysteries. The Maltese Falcon had theft, and theft, and theft again in the pursuit of riches, as well as multiple murders. Mulholland Dive had murder and blackmail to obtain riches.
Both stories were written by men, not a lot of talk about feelings and extraneous detail. Both stories had men as main figures that were competent and strong willed. Both had women that were corrupt but dependent on men to some extent to carry out the ultimate deeds. I enjoyed both stories and it was difficult to pick a favorite. I liked the intrigue and twists and turns of The Maltese Falcon. I liked the setting and that I felt I was taken back in time. I liked Mulholland Dive because the pace was fast, and direct, and it really worked for this story. I know it broke the rule of the detective being the criminal, but it didn't matter to me in this story. I especially liked the irony of the ending (won't say it here so as to not ruin it for another reader). That ending was great. I am very much enjoying this course. It is so interesting to dig in and see what I like about mysteries since I have always been a fanatic. I liked the introductory readings and learned a lot from them about what makes mysteries work, and what does not. It's good to read what others are thinking as well.
In general I am interested to see how short stories can develop characters enough to pull the reader in,create enough intrigue to peak interest the, and provide clues to the ending. I wonder if there are any separate rules for short stories.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Gotta love it!

There is just something great about settling down with a good mystery, planning on spending all day relaxing and reading, and calling it homework! Guilt free, the laundry and other chores will wait for a while, after all, I HAVE to do my homework, today.