Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bernard Malamud: “The Magic Barrel,” “The Last Mohican,” and “The Jewbird.”

As Debra Spark says in her introduction, Bernard Malamud uses “fairy tale, myth and magic” not to distract us from reality, but “lead [us] to it in the most profound way.” Imagine us diving back into the words of our favorite childhood fairy tales and stories, letting them lead us to examine our own reality in a way we didn't know how back when we were children. Malamund allows us to do that with his stories “The Magic Barrel,” “The Last Mohican,” and “The Jewbird.” His use of magical realism allows us to see our reality through these stories of magic and mystery.

Malamund also has the unique ability to draw us in to the plaight of his characters, even us readers who are not Jewish. When his mother asked why a non-Jew would want to read his stories, he famously replied that “All men are Jews.” In that, we all suffer in various ways, either by our unique ethnic background, gender or class. We live, therefore we suffer, according to Malamund.

We have characters that have forgotten their Jewish past, such as Cohen in “The Jewbird” and Fidelman in “The Last Mohican.” We have the “Old Jews” such as the lonely rabbi in “The Magic Barrel,” and the union of him with the fallen rabbi's daughter. These stories show that one must find a balance between the ways of the past and the ways of the present. Malamud accomplishes that by creating stories that all people, oppressed or not, will be able to read, enjoy and learn from.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Andrea Barrett: "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," "Birds with no Feet," and "Servants of the Map"

Photograph by Marilyn K. Lee
To read Barrett's stories, get cozy with the idea of scientific drama in the mid-1800s!  It's pretty exciting.  Imagine all the friendships and conflicts, the treacheries and discoveries, the disappointment and the elation.  How when Gregor Mendel back in 1856 in his monastery started studying inherited traits of pea plants, Charles Darwin was working on On the Origin of Species, which he published in 1859.  How Alec, the fictional protagonist of "Birds with No Feet," was working for Alfred Russel Wallace, who is best known for coming up with the theory of evolution through natural selection, which prompted Charles Darwin to publish his ideas first.  And of course, how darling, confused Max Vigne in 1863 is following the 1847 footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker (who affectionately dedicated his book to Darwin), and dealing with distance and lines of separation between him and his wife.  The competitions of scientific men and women, the egos and ambitions and personal lives and tragedies, are all part of Andrea Barrett's medium.  What I admire most is the complicated way she shows me the relevance of these stories.  I may not be traveling in India or trying to find significance in the inherited traits of peas, but I am constantly navigating personal relationships, devoting hours and hours to personal obsessions, and worrying about the meaning of my work.  Barrett is double-whip grafting our lives onto the stock of the past.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Toni Cade Bambara: "My Man Bovanne," "The Lesson," and "The Organizer's Wife"

“My Man Bovanne” comes to us here as a first impression.  Toni Cade Bambara shows us the portrait of an older African-American woman, a stubborn, time-hardened woman—though she has not lost humility, she is still soft in places—a principled woman—though her principles are masked, hidden from the younger generation, her children included.  In short, Bambara brings life to a character we may assume to resemble the author herself, a character Catherine and I came to affectionately refer to as the hefty woman (a phrase found later, in “The Organizer’s Wife”).

When we move on to the second of these stories selected by David Haynes, we encounter a younger speaker, a child with a world view not yet tainted by realities outside her own, or, perhaps more accurately, a world view tainted by her ignorance of realities outside her own.  Is this too a vision of Bambara?  This girl too is stubborn and principled, though not so firmly rooted, still taking shape before the kiln-burn.

Bambara, I think, is both of these characters, and she is neither.  She has fooled us, and I for one have never been so delighted to be fooled.  Bambara has masterfully crafted first person narrators in authentic vernacular and circumstance.  She has drenched us in the churning waters of a world outside our own, and by doing so has allowed us into that world.  These vivid glimpses become an invitation.  Read on, read on!

“The Organizer’s Wife” for me demanded multiple reads.  The third-person narrative here gives the feeling of distance, but our view of Virginia is as clear and distinct as either of the other two stories' narrators.  We see a woman between the girl and the old woman, both in age and philosophy.  We watch her struggle in this place, and then, in perhaps the most captivating scene of the story, we see Virginia see herself: "She saw the scene detached, poster figures animated: a hefty woman pursuing a scrambling man..."  Bamabara shows us Virginia's transformation as Virginia herself sees it.

These stories show the range of a life, of many lives—the range and scope of a writer worth admiring.