Yesterday by Haruki Murakami

Erika stared at the candle flame flickering in the breeze from the A.C. “I often have the same dream,” she said. “Aki-kun and I are on a ship. A long journey on a large ship. We’re together in a small cabin, it’s late at night, and through the porthole we can see the full moon. But that moon is made of pure, transparent ice. And the bottom half of it is sunk in the sea. ‘That looks like the moon,” Aki-kun tells me, ‘but it’s really made of ice and is only about eight inches thick. So when the sun comes out in the morning it all melts. You should get a good look at it now, while you have the chance.’ I’ve had this dream so many times. It’s a beautiful dream. Always the same moon. Always eight inches thick. I’m leaning against Aki-kun, it’s just the two of us, the waves lapping gently outside. But every time I wake up I feel unbearable sad.”

“YesterdayIs two days before tomorrow,The day after two days ago.”

When I finish a piece by Haruki Murakami I can envision the setting. I can feel the mood. I feel like I’ve been introduced properly to the characters. His writing makes the smallest detail seem incredibly important. But I can’t always say that I understand what he’s writing about. I look for a theme, or a lesson, or even a significant point, and I feel a bit lost. To me, Yesterday speaks ultimately about the brevity of our lives, the melting of what’s important, and the sadness inherent in every relationship.
What I do understand is how his characters feel. His description of them resonates with me in such a way that it feels as if he’s describing my own heart. My own life: 
“I couldn’t speak. Not being able to find the right words at crucial times is one of my many problems.”
“Brooding over how things had turned out–after everything had already been decided–was another of my chronic problems.”
Thanks to Mookse and The Gripes for the heads up about the appearance of Haruki Murakami’s short story. You can read Yesterday in The New Yorker here.

Irish Short Story Month: The First Confession by Frank O’Connor

I am not Catholic.
I’ve often attended Catholic services and longed for the cathedrals of stained glass, the ancient prayers and liturgy, the solemn dress of the priest.
But, I belong to a Protestant church with my husband in which the sanctuary is now called an auditorium, the time honored chants are replaced with drums and instruments, the stained glass windows are only cement blocks.
I think I would like many of the traditions found in a Catholic church, even though I’ve heard people who were raised in one sound very scornful of rituals such as the Holy Days of Obligation, the first Communion, and Confession. So I come to this story by Frank O’Connor rather unaware of how confession is supposed to work.
I found myself laughing at the poor boy’s trial in learning the process for himself. In five printed pages our narrator takes us through the whole experience, of hearing about hell and being dared to taste it by “holding one finger-only one finger!-in a little candle flame for five minutes.” Not one child in the school would take the old woman’s promise to deliver a half-crown to anyone who would submit to this experience, and “at the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment; a religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half -crown.”
When he makes his first confession, he is completely baffled once he is inside the chapel. “I knew then I was lost, given up to eternal justice. The door with the coloured-glass panels swung shut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet.”
His confusion and fear become worse when he finds himself within the confessional with his pious sister waiting outside. “With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn’t see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started; I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession.” I waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.”
What follows in this story, is an account of the whole experience through the eyes of  a young Irish boy who discovers in the process that perhaps he is not as sinful as he first suspected. It is a charming story, for Catholics and Protestants alike, for any one who has been a child and subjected to the tyranny of adults. The refreshment of a compassionate priest must be like the Balm of Gilead.
Thank you, lovely Jillian, who asked me on Saturday if I’d read The First Confession by Frank O’Connor. I had not, and so she sent me a link to the work, which is a perfect choice for March and Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.
“In his 63 years, Frank O’Connor produced an impressive amount of work…but it’s his short stories that guarantee his immortality. They are encapsulated universes. While most modern stories focus on a single moment, Frank O’Connor’s generally sum up the patterns of whole lives ….Each [story] is, in its own way, shattering.” — Anne Tyler, Chicago Sunday Times
“Walter Benjamin says in his essay on Leskov that people think of a storyteller as someone who has come from afar. O’Connor’s best stories put the same thought into our heads; how far, in some imaginative sense, he has to travel to achieve such wisdom and to accomplish it with such Flair.” — Denis Donoghue, New York Times Book Review
“In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O’Connor’s people explode from the page. The nice are here and the nasty: the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it….Without adornment, he simply tells the truth.” — William Trevor, Washington Post Book World
Read the story online here.

Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fizgerald

I cannot even tell you how much I love these stories. Never one to be overwhelmed with The Great Gatsby, I am now truly impressed by Fitzgerald’s skill in these stories. Each one is written so beautifully, and the endings, more often than not, pack a serious punch. This is a fabulous collection of brilliant short stories. I’ll put my favorite quotes from each chapter under the titles below, but you’ll have to read the entire story for the full effect of their power:

The Offshore Pirates

“Does every man you meet tell you he loves you?”

Ardita nodded.

“Why shouldn’t he? All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase—‘I love you.’ “

The Ice Palace

“With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out. She might be lost in here for days, freeze to death and lie embedded in the ice like corpses she had read of, kept perfectly preserved until the melting of a glacier, Harry probably thought she had left with the others–he had gone by now; now one would know until late next day. She reached pitifully for the wall. Forty inches thick, they had said–forty inches thick!”

Head and Shoulders 

“But when you opened your door at the rap of life you let in many things.” (p. 62) and then…

“About raps. Don’t answer them! Let them alone—have a padded door.” (p. 67)

The Cut-Glass Bowl

“You see, I am fate,” it (the bowl) shouted, “and stronger than your puny plans; and I am how-things-turn-out and I am different from your little dreams, and I am the flight of time and the end of beauty and unfulfilled desire; all the accidents and imperceptions and the little minutes that shape the crucial hours are mine. I am the exception that proves no rules, the limits of your control, the condiment in the dish of life.”

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

“Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.”


“You can’t shock a monk. He’s a professional shock-absorber.”

Dalyrimple Goes Wrong 

“Happiness was what he wanted-a slowly rising scale of gratifications of the normal appetites-and he had a strong conviction that the materials, if not the inspiration of happiness, could be bought with money.”

The Four Fists

“He sailed home on the wings of desperate excitement, quite resolved to fan this spark of romance, no matter how big the blaze or who was burned. At the time he considered that his thoughts were unselfishly of her; in a later perspective he knew that she had meant no more than the white screen in a motion picture; it was just Samuel-blind, desirous.”

Did I do my part to intrigue you? Seriously, these are fantastic stories…

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

I’d like to say that my interest in this story came first from F. Scott Fitgerald’s writing. Or, even from the 1920s themselves. It didn’t. It came from the hair. Because a bob is my very favorite cut, the cut that I’ve worn most frequently for the last twenty years. (Although my curls are not in the formed waves you frequently see on Zelda. Look at the photograph of her above, and tell me she doesn’t look absolutely charming. Schizophrenic or not.)

A few years ago when I came to school after Santo had given me another fabulous cut, our Art teacher said, “Your haircut reminds me of Bernice.”

“Bernice?” I inquired.

“Yes, from that short story by Fitzgerald. You know, Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” she replied.
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

So, when The Classics Circuit Tour came around, with The Lost Generation for its theme, I knew I had to write about this story which is included in the collection Flappers and Philosophers.

Now that I’ve read the story, I’m not certain that resembling Bernice is a compliment. Although it’s certainly preferable to me than being compared to her cousin, Marjorie. Bernice is visiting her cousin from Eau Claire, where she was perfectly comfortable driving her own car, living her own life. But, in Marjorie’s world a girl lives on her charms. And one of the ways that her charms can be measured is by the number of times she is cut into during a dance.

No matter how beautiful or brilliant a girl maybe, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. ‘Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.

At first, Marjorie implores her many beaux to dance with Bernice. Then, when Bernice overhears Marjorie talking to her mother about Bernice’s lack of charisma, Bernice claims she will go home.

“I guess I’d better go back to Eau Claire–if I’m such a nuisance.” Bernice’s lower lip was trembling violently and she continued on a wavering note: “I’ve tried to be nice, and–and I’ve been first neglected and then insulted. No one ever visited me and got such treatment.”

Marjorie calls Bernice’s bluff, then teaches her how to be more effective socially. Bernice must brush her eyebrows so they’ll grow straight and have her teeth straightened a little; learn to be nice to men who are “sad birds”;  she must neither lean on a dancing partner, nor stand straight up. Bernice learns Marjorie’s skills so effectively, that soon she has not only many dancing partners, but Marjorie’s best beau, Warren.

When Bernice declares that she will bob her hair, Marjorie again calls her bluff, and Bernice finds herself in the barber’s chair much like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine.

Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.

Courageously, Bernice has her hair bobbed. But, she is not prepared for the reactions she receives from the surrounding crowd, Warren, or even her aunt and uncle. The only thing we could foresee as an eventuality was the little smirk playing around Marjorie’s mouth when Bernice’s tresses were gone.

This is one of those stories with an incredibly ironic ending. Much like O. Henry’s story, The Gift of The Magi, it is not so much about the loss of hair as the reasons behind why it was cut. As well as the things that are learned from doing so.

You can read Bernice Bobs Her Hair online. Really, take the time to read this sensational story which was first published in 1922. Then we can talk about the ending together. It’s one of my favorite pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(This story was read and reviewed before my Lenten project of reading only the Bible until Easter Sunday.)