A Story for Etta and Welles

September 1, 2017 at 8:12 pm (Family)

Last month, Grandma and Grandpa came for a visit.

They got to see Welles and Etta honing their computer skills.

Welles and Etta have just been to Yellowstone National Park! This is why Welles has a nice new stuffed bison. Etta has one too.

Etta and Welles are about to leave for a Superhero-themed birthday party.
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During the visit, Welles and Etta made a fort. This is an activity which all children seem to enjoy.

 

 

(A fort can be a great hiding place.)

Grandma, Etta, and Welles went for a walk to the park. Along the way, they saw some interesting sights:

As they walk, they hold hands, ever mindful of safety.

Etta really loves her little brother! The feeling is mutual.

 

Sometimes the sheer joy of being alive takes hold. And then you just have to take off running! (That’s okay, as long as you stop at the intersection. Welles  and Etta are very good about that.)

Etta and Welles both have birthdays coming soon. Happy birthday to both of you!

 

 

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Hans Holbein

September 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm (Art)

[Click to enlarge]

What an astonishing portrait! The Sieur de Morette’s gaze is so piercing, one almost feels the need to turn away.

Hans Holbein the Younger – his father was also an artist – is probably best known for his portraits of King Henry VIII:

And then there is this lavish double portrait, with the strange and sinister object – called an anamorphosis – at the  bottom:

Although he was a skillful and inventive draftsman, printmaker, miniaturist and jewelry designer, Hans Holbein the Younger is best known as a painter, in particular as a portraitist. An assured, meticulous technician, Holbein’s insights into the character of his sitters are achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through his cool, emotional detachment and objective, astonishing realism. Working primarily in Switzerland and England, he is nonetheless one of the greatest German artists of the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein the Younger, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

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“‘To have a child is to open an account at the heartbreak bank…'”

August 29, 2017 at 7:31 pm (Book review, books)

Liv makes the above pronouncement one night to her husband Benjamin. They’re on a cruise, and they’re luxuriating in bed, at that moment.

Liv and Benjamin are the parents of two: Penny, an eleven-year-old who possesses the officiousness characteristic of some girls that age, and her younger brother Sebastian, a sweet little boy whose health must be monitored carefully; he is diabetic.

Liv is speaking in the abstract. She has no inkling of the events soon to occur that will affect all of them profoundly. How could she? They’ve dealt with the initial shock of Sebastian’s chronic illness; the entire family is engaged in helping him manage it. The effort has thus far been a notable success.

Accompanying Liv and Benjamin on this South American excursion are Liv’s cousin Nora and her husband Raymond. They also have two children: Marcus, the elder, and little June, often called Junie. Liv and Nora are close, nearly as close a sisters. Nora’s mother has recently passed away, and Liv had come up with the idea of all four of them traveling together, partly as a way of consoling Nora for her deeply felt loss.

At the outset of this venture, everything seems to be fine – not just fine, even great. The adults are nearly as excited as the kids.

On the walk to the buffet, Nora linked her arm through Liv’s and put her head on her shoulder, making Liv feel excessively tall. “I love you,” Nora said. “This was a genius idea.”

And so it would seem. Up to a point. That point is reached when Nora and Liv and the children, along with an Argentine woman and her two teenagers, decide to go on a zip-lining excursion while the ship is docked. A guide, Pedro, arranges things for then. Meanwhile, the men go off to play golf.

What could be more innocent, more conducive to a good time?

I dare not say more. I’ll just quote the final line of the Kirkus review  of this brainy and propulsive thriller by Maile Meloy:

Do not start this book after dinner or you will almost certainly be up all night.

I was.

 

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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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‘Transcendence in Ordinary Domestic Life’ – and a transcendentally beautiful essay

August 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

The above painting by Pieter de Hooch is variously titled “A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair” or, more succinctly and less specifically, “A Mother’s Duty.” Made some time between 1658 and 1660, it is currently housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Of the artist, Willard Spiegelman tells us this:

About De Hooch we know little. Born in Rotterdam to a bricklayer and a midwife, he trained (perhaps) in Haarlem, and moved to Delft in 1652, where Vermeer also lived. It’s unclear if they had dealings. In 1661 De Hooch went to Amsterdam. He died impoverished, in a madhouse.

Spiegelman has more to say about the painting itself, which he calls ” a northern, secular version of a traditional Madonna and Child.”

In  the course of this eloquent explication, Spiegelman draws a subtle difference between the art of de Hooch and that of Vermeer:

We do not find in de Hooch what we most prize in Vermeer: a mysterious sense of human inwardness, an artist’s interest in the psychological depth of his characters, either alone or in small groups.

Reading this sentence, I felt a light turn on in my mind. So that is it, that is the secret – or at least, part of it – of Vermeer’s uncanny hold on those of us who are transfixed by his art. But Spegelman does not allow us to get sidetracked by Vermeer. The subject of this jewel-like essay is the many virtues of “A Mother’s Duty.”

Spiegelman refers to the dog at the left as an element in the picture that “…increases domestic charm.” In art, the dog is a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. Two of my favorite examples of this usage are the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio:

(I highly recommend Jan Morris’s delightful little volume, Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation.)

(Willard Spiegelman’s essay appeared in the August 19 – 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The link provided in the previous sentence may not lead you to the full text. If that happens, the article can be accessed via the ProQuest database. Please see this post for instructions on how to do this through the Howard County Library’s website. Scroll down to the bottom to view those instructions.)

I am deeply grateful for the weekly Review section of the Wall Street Journal, in which literature and the arts have unquestioned pride of place.

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‘An act that becomes its own purifying absolution….’ – American Fire by Monica Hesse

August 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  It started in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in November of 2012. It went on  for the next five months: the burning down of random empty buildings. The county had an abundant stock of such structures, and someone was apparently determined to take a torch to every one of them.

By some miracle, no one was killed, or even hurt, during this pyromaniacal rampage. But the effort to catch the perpetrator strained law enforcement to the breaking point. Firefighters in particular were hard hit and utterly exhausted. Still, the effort put forth during this siege was enormous and unstinting.

Whispering Pines, a once flourishing motel/resort, had been sitting empty before being set ablaze.

One tactic involved staking out buildings that were deemed to be likely targets. All sorts of electronic surveillance devices, especially motion sensitive cameras, were deployed. Agents of law enforcement huddled in tents at night, some distance – but not too far – from the focus of incendiary temptation.

Sure enough, five months into the investigation, this was the set-up that suddenly broke the case wide open.

Monica Hesse has done a prodigious amount of research in order to bring this stranger-than-fiction tale to life. In addition, she introduces us to a varied cast of characters who live and work – at least occasionally – in the insular community that is Accomack. Some are strong and purposeful; others are quirky drifters. And one, Charlie Smith, is – well, you need to read  the book to make your own assessment of Charlie.

Including notes, American Fire is 255 pages long; the experience of reading of it is propulsive. I put pretty much everything else aside as I raced though this narrative. If you’re looking for a page turner, this is it.

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The art of the Northern Renaissance, with a side trip to Colmar

August 19, 2017 at 11:48 am (Art)

I have fallen in love with the art of the Northern Renaissance. Can you blame me? Just look:

 

Adoration of the Shepherds –  Martin Schongauer  1475-1480

Depictions of the nativity, along with other images of Virgin and Child, abound in this period. Many share with this painting a powerful mix of awe and sweetness. Humble shepherds worship together with exalted rulers. Class distinctions have fallen away.

 

Rest on the Flight into Egypt – Gerard David  c. 1510

 

Madonna in the Church – Jan Van Eyck 1438

 

Madonna in the Rose Garden – Stephan Lochner c.1440

 

Nativity at Night – Geertgen tot Sint Jans c.1490

Geertgen’s Nativity at Night is one of the period’s most poetic paintings….Christ’s radiance illuminates Mary, who leans over the manger to adore her son, and the angels….Only rarely at this date had light been the organizing feature of an entire composition….Mary is the universal mother awed by her son’s majesty and haunted by his martyrdom….This humanization of the holy, promoted by the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans…would be one of the persistent characteristics of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century art.

From The Northern Renaissance by Jeffrey Chipps Smith

 

Madonna of the Rose Garden – Martin Schongauer  c.1473

A great admirer of Schongauer’s work. Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar in 1492 in the hope of studying with this great master. But when he arrived there, he discovered that Schongauer had recently died. He would have been about 43  years old. (It never ceases to astonish, the poignant fact of the tenuousness of life in those times.)

There was, of course, no stopping the prodigiously gifted Durer:

Self-portrait at age 13, in 1484

 

Self-portrait, 1498

 

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

 

Praying Hands, 1508

 

Young Hare 1502

 

Adoration of the Trinity 1511

Oil painting, wood block print, engraving, silverpoint, water color – Durer did all of them, and did them superbly. He also authored two theoretical works: Four Books on Measurement and Four Books on Human Proportion.

I highly recommend Professor Catherine B. Scallen’s lectures on The Art of the Northern Renaissance. They’re available on DVD on the Great Courses series.  If you’re lucky as we are, your local public library will carry these wonderful learning tools.
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Reading about Colmar put me in mind of two things, one artistic; the other, literary. First: Colmar is home to the Unterlinden Museum, which among its other treasures houses one of the most stunning works of the Northern Renaissance, an image of suffering so profound that it can almost seem painful to gaze upon: Matthias Grunewald’s early sixteenth century masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece:

The Isenheim Altarpiece as it is currently displayed in the chapel of the Unterlinden Museum

For more views of the Altarpiece, with an in depth explication, click here.

The composer Paul Hindemith wrote an opera based on the life and work of Matthias Grunewald. Called Mathis der Maler – Mathis the Painter – it is rarely performed nowadays; however, a suite of music taken from it is frequently performed as a symphony and is widely admired as such:

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When I was in high school, I was fortunate in having a French teacher who was a knowledgeable and passionate Francophile. Her name was Gail Davis. She shared with us a short story by Alphonse Daudet called “La Dernière Classe” – “The Last Class.”  The time is approximately 1873. Victorious in the Franco-Prussian War, the Germans have decreed that in the schools of the Alsace-Lorraine region, the German language must be spoken to the exclusion of French. In this story, the author describes the effect that this decree has on one small boy and his teacher.

To read, click here.

 

 

 

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Striking Writing

August 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

This post is an addendum to a previous post about this short story collection.

Patricia Highsmith

In “The Heroine” by Patricia Highsmith, Louise is a newly hired nanny in the Christiansen household. The children she is to look after are Nicky and Heloise.

The two children lay on the floor in one corner, amid scattered crayons and picture books.
“Children, this is your new nurse,” their mother said. “Her name is Lucille.”
The little boy stood up and said, “How do you do,” as he solemnly held out a crayon-stained hand.
Lucille took it, and with a slow nod of her head repeated his greeting.
“And Heloise,” Mrs. Christiansen said, leading the second child, who was smaller, toward Louise.
Heloise stared up at the figure in white and said, “How do you do.”
….

“Nightfall,” Louise whispered as she went back into the nursery. “What a beautiful word!”
….
She noticed and loved many things: the way Heloise drank her milk in little gulps at the back of her throat, how the blond down on their backs swirled up to meet the hair on the napes of their necks, and when she bathed them the painful vulnerability of their bodies.

Right from the get-go, this story is suffused with a palpable sense of dread. You want to put it away yet are  compelled to keep reading. (It reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates at her creepiest.)
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Vera Caspary

She neither spoke nor stirred. In her  greens and reds and golds, with the big hoops in her ears, she was like one of those haughty, rebellious duchesses that Goya loved to paint.
….
Every woman at the party envied Phyllis. Gilbert wore his good looks like an advertisement of superior masculinity.
….
Phyllis was being frightfully gay at this time, spending Fred Miller’s money wildly and surrounding herself with good-looking young men. She had  become extremely chic. This Mike thought was an affectation. Like so many bored women, she was seeking compensation for  the dullness of her nights by exhibiting herself in costumes whose extravagance advertised her loneliness.

“Sugar and Spice,” by Vera Caspary
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Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Long ago, when he had  been a proud and rather pompous little boy, he had heard in Sunday school about  Abraham and Isaac; he could still remember the picture he had seen of a thin and resigned young Isaac lying on the sacrificial stone while his bearded father stood over him with a knife.

“The Stranger in the Car,” by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

How many young people, one wonders, have been transfixed by this terrifying story? And adults too. I recall, in my college seminar in existentialism, having to confront it head on in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
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Charlotte Armstrong

The door of the enormous bedroom stood wide and her sister’s bed, neatly made, shouted that poor Alice was gone. Mr. Brady sampled the little recurring shock. It was not exactly lessening, but it was changing character. Yes, it was going over from feeling to thinking. She could perceive with her mind the hole in the fabric, the loss of a presence, the absence of a force.
….
Maybe Henny felt guilty  because, during that seemingly normal afternoon,  Henny herself had gone up to the third floor to “lie down” as usual, and had not made even a token resistance to the coming of the angel of death, by being alert to his imminence. Nobody had expected Alice to die–not on Monday.
….
He was a tall man, a bit thick in the middle these days; his hair was graying; his long face had acquired a permanent look of slight anxiety. He was a quiet man, who ran well in light harness, grateful for peace whenever he got it.

“The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong
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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: stellar stories

August 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

    This distinctive collection of short stories, meticulously curated by Sarah Weinman, comes as something of a revelation.

The anthology is subtitled, “Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” In her introduction, Sarah Weinman declares her attraction to contemporary crime fiction written by women. She names several: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Tana French, Louise Penny, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott. She avers that in their fiction, these writers and others have in effect taken “a scalpel to contemporary society,” revealing the moral rot lying just beneath the congenial seeming veneer. In particular, they often portray the struggles faced by women trying, in the face of insidious opposition, to lead meaningful lives.

When Weinman went in search of those who may have preceded the current wave of women authors of crime fiction, she made a surprising and disconcerting discovery; namely, that there was “an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view.” Troubled, Daughters, Twisted Wives is the start of an effort to rectify that situation by bringing these forerunners – “trailblazers” as Weinman rightly calls them –  and their intriguing, sometimes idiosyncratic works back into public view.

There are some  familiar names here: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson being among the most notable. Vera Caspary’s fame rests mainly on her novel Laura, which was made into one of the great noir films of the 1940s starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Margaret Millar is known primarily as the wife of the great Ross MacDonald, but she deserves to be recognized in her own right for the fine writer  that she is. The prolific Dorothy B. Hughes, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1978, wrote In a Lonely Place, which also became a distinguished noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

Other names in this collection were barely familiar – to me, anyway – or not previously known at all: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It would be difficult for me to name a favorite or favorites in this collection. I thought they were all, in varying degree, very much worth reading. So much so, in fact, that I intend to read them through a second time. (Weinman provides a page or so of valuable material about the author’s life and work before each story.)

Taken together, these stories evoke a vivid picture of a lost mid twentieth century America. You had to wait around to place a long distance call and then calculate the cost of it. Everyone had servants, even families of modest income. Men oscillated between exploiting women and protecting them (and making a show of protecting them). Men were schemers and so were women. Civilization sometimes seemed a perilously thin veneer, poised on the knife edge, always threatening to topple over into chaos. The past is a different country, for sure, but on the other hand, the more things change….

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives came out in 2013. Two years later, with Sarah Weinman as editor, the Library of America brought out Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s. The authors featured in this two volume collection are Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1940s); Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Dolores Hitchens (1950s).

 

Earlier this month, I had  the pleasure of hearing Sarah Weinman speak at the Sisters in Crime Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. She spoke about her work as an editor and a critic in the field of crime fiction, where she’s making, as you can see from the above, an outstanding contribution to the field. (With her efforts to bring worthy writers back from undeserved obscurity, I see her as a sort of American counterpart to Martin Edwards.)

In the course of her talk (which alas I had some trouble hearing in its entirety), Sarah Weinman extolled in particular the virtues of the following: Celia Fremlin (in whose Edgar Award winning novel The Hours Before Dawn I’m currently engrossed), Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Lowndes wrote The Lodger, a famously chilling thriller made into a silent film in 1927 by a neophyte director named Alfred Hitchcock.   Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, whose story “The Stranger in the Car” I found especially effective, authored a novel called The Blank Wall. After hearing Weinman discuss it, I’m very eager to read it.

As for Dorothy Salisbury Davis, her story “Lost Generation” was one of the shorter ones in the collection, and also one of  the most powerful. Sarah Weinman enthused about the fact that she’d had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms Davis. At the time of the publication of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), Davis was 96 years old. She passed away the following year.

Celia Fremlin

Shirley Jackson

Patricia Highsmith

Dorothy B. Hughes

Margaret Millar

Vera Caspary

Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Sarah Weinman at Sisters in Crime

Sarah Weinman in better focus!

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“Flight” by Tessa Hadley – something about this story…

August 11, 2017 at 9:43 pm (books, Short stories)

  Two sisters, Claire and Susan, have been estranged for a number of years. Their lives have evolved very differently. Shuttling between Philadelphia and London, Claire, who is single, is a busy professional woman. Susan, also single since her husband’s desertion, works as a carer for elderly and disabled persons. She has four children, two of whom are grown and living on their own. Ryan, the youngest, still lives at home. So does Amy, who has just had a baby. Also living with all of them is Amy’s boyfriend Ben, the baby’s father.

The arrival of the baby represents a tipping point for Claire. It’s time, she believes, to end the hostilities between  Susan and herself. She decides to show up unannounced at the house in Leeds, which had been the childhood home for both of them. (This house, in fact, is at the heart of the dispute between the sisters.)

When Claire arrives, Susan is not at home, but she is warmly welcomed by Amy and Ben, and later by Ryan when he gets home. As for the baby, Claire finds herself gripped simultaneously by feelings of love and pity:

The sight of his weak flailing baby limbs and the reddened swollen navel tugged painfully at Claire – he startled fearfully once, jerking his whole body with grimace and lost cry as if he were falling through empty space.

Meanwhile, all three have been awaiting Susan’s return from work. They do not know how she will react to Claire’s completely unexpected  presence.

They are soon to find out.

Something about this story affected me deeply. Its cumulative power had me suspended in time. I had no notion how things would play out. I only knew that it mattered to me very, very much.

“Flight” can be read online here, but I recommend getting Hadley’s collection Bad Dreams and Other Stories. As a writer of short fiction, she is, in my view, right up there with Alice Munro.

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