Sentences — February 23, 2009, 5:21 pm

Have Another Biscuit With Your Tea

Last night was the annual American devotional exercise to the
excesses of second-class storytelling
. I
didn’t watch, so won’t bag on the particulars, much less the idea of
such a celebration. It’s very likely that if I had watched I would
have wept a joyous plenty: when it isn’t purely ridiculous (“you’re
the next contestant on… the Price is Right!”) it is
uncomplicatedly moving to watch people get good news (a version of
Stendhal’s Syndrome,
I’m guessing). Even so, most movies, especially movies that are well
received, are terrible, for reasons that the Oscars make routinely
obvious, both by what films they omit and of course select. Benjamin

was, to my mind, high flown garbage of a very pure
an excellent example of the triumph of technique over storytelling

What can be accomplished without $160 million dollars isn’t surprising
at all, and it’s always nice to see something short and authentically
moving that doesn’t require any effects more special than syntax and
something to say. Granta, for example, has a new issue devoted to
“Fathers”. Many good short
pieces by a range of writers including Jonathan
Joseph O’Neill, Siri

and Francesca Segal.
My favorite in the issue is by Ali
. I haven’t read
her novels but
now will. Her brief “Portrait of my Father,” contains this paragraph:

My father, one afternoon, sat at the dinette table, unscrewed my talking bear whose cord had broken, and screwed it back together. It worked. ‘When people are dead, graves aren’t where to ?nd them. They’re in the wind, the grass.’ That’s the kind of thing he said. When I asked him what you do if you see something in the dark that frightens you, he said, ‘What you do is, you go up to it, and touch it.’ When things went wrong in the neighbourhood, people would come to my father for help. When we went to visit an old neighbour last autumn, in her eighties too, she called him Mr Smith. ‘Call me Donald, now, Chrissie,’ he said. She shook her head. ‘You’ll have another biscuit with your tea, Mr Smith,’ she said.

And not much more. A deceptively simple recollection, that ends like a
Russian gymnast nailing a dismount. Deceptive ease, real power, and
nothing extra. The whole thing takes three minutes, and will brighten
your Monday. Read it here.

Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Residence on Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term ‘writer’s writer.’ The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Pakistan in Miniatures·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play.”
Painting by by Imran Qureshi.
Cattle Calls·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The business of being a country veterinarian is increasingly precarious. The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region.”
Photograph by Lance Rosenfield
Getting Jobbed·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks, plus Rosie’s unemployment and food stamps, which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line.”
Illustrations by Taylor Callery
Lifting as We Climb·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“They never suggested that these circumstances were just; to the contrary, they resented them and abhorred the prejudice and discrimination that littered with dangerous booby traps the pathways trod by their beloved children.”
Photograph © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Percentage change in applications for Virginia concealed-handgun permits in the year of the Virginia Tech shootings:


A Colorado woman was jailed for falsely claiming that her son is a genius.

A Florida man was charged with a felony after allegedly stealing a metal spoon worth $1.12 from a Walmart so that he could eat his Cap’n Crunch.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today