Dorothy Parker: Here We Are

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 5

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“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

I thought Dorothy Parker’s short story “The Waltz” was one of the most hilarious stories I read in 2014.  This week (Week 5 of Deal Me In), I read her story “Here We Are” and I think it’s even funnier.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The entire story is set on a train as a newly married couple head to New York City for their honeymoon. The nervousness is apparent on the parts of both the bride and the groom with the title phrase being thrown out during awkward lulls in the conversation.  The poor groom continuously puts his foot in his mouth giving the bride just enough reason to accuse him of looking too long at one of her bridesmaids or of not liking her family. I get the distinct impression that the bride isn’t really worried about what her new husband thought – she just doesn’t know what else to say.  With the “wedding night” looming large on the horizon, the husband does his best to dance around the topic that is foremost on his mind.

While “The Waltz” contrasts a young lady’s outward thoughts written in conversation with her inward thoughts written in narrative form, “Here We Are” takes that concept one step further. I’m amazed at Parker’s ability to write a conversation of small talk with frequent silences and to still let the reader know that much more is going on underneath the dialogue without explaining it.  She manages to let the conversation speak for itself.  This line neatly sums up the story:

There was a silence with things going on in it.

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Katherine Anne Porter: Theft

Deal Me In Week 4

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She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought.  I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.

Don’t ask me to explain why because I’m not sure that I could, but the disillusionment found in post-World War I literature is one of my greatest joys.

“Theft” , published in 1929, is the second story I’ve read by Katherine Anne Porter and it’s vastly different from “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”, the first story of hers that I read.  I’ll thank Jay of Bibliophilopolis for pointing out to me in his review the similarity of “Theft” to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  

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The unnamed female narrator of “Theft” realizes that her purse has been stolen.  She retraces, through a flashback, the New York City steps of her night on the town in which she seems to be repeatedly rejected by men – either through letters or through taxi rides.  I’m not sure anyone in the story is happy in their relationships.  Rejection and isolation continue as a theme as one of the narrator’s playwright friends discusses his theater missteps.

The narrator eventually realizes who stole her purse and confronts the person (it’s not one of the men although it wouldn’t have surprised me if it had been). This person denies it, then confesses and returns the purse.  When the narrator decides to be forgiving and let the thief keep the purse, the thief rejects the offer.

While the story might seem to be low on plot, no detail is wasted.  Everything comes together in a beautiful loneliness.  “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” differs from this story in that Granny, while having seen her share of rejection during her life, still has a weary strength and a small glimmer of hope even at the end of her life.  It’s difficult to imagine “Theft” ‘s narrator having this same glimmer.

I read “Theft” for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project when I drew the Nine of Clubs.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Unpersuadables by Will Storr

Only a few minutes down the road from where I live, there is a museum dedicated to the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that it was created in six twenty-four hour days. The basis for this idea is the Book of Genesis in the Bible. According to a sign near the entrance: if this isn’t true, nothing else about the Bible can be true.  I have issues with this supposition; however, arguing against it is not the point of this post or of this blog.  In the spring and summer, I enjoy going to the museum to walk around the outside gardens, they are quite beautiful.

Will Storr’s book The Unpersuadables: Adventures With the Enemies of Science is a rather unique journalistic approach to those who hold to certain beliefs even when the facts seemingly say otherwise.  Among others, he interviews prominent figures associated with this museum.  Storr doesn’t limit his research to creationism, though.  Beliefs in reincarnation, faith-healing, and extraterrestrial life are examples of ideas Storr also explores.

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I was surprised to find how well Storr seemed to get along with most of the people he gets to know while conducting this project.  He makes no mistake in letting them know his thoughts and ideas and usually they do not align with their beliefs. In true journalistic fashion, he is able to put his beliefs on hold in attempting to get to the root of why people will believe something that seems to be so easy to disprove.  Storr seems to exude a trustworthiness in spite of his disagreements.

If one is looking for hard cold reasons to disprove creation, reincarnation or UFO’s, this book probably isn’t going to be it. I’m sure there are a number of other books out there that attempt to do that. Sociologically and psychologically, however, Storr makes some headway in understanding what he would call this “phenomenon” of belief.  If one is interested in that, this is fascinating reading.

E. B. White: The Second Tree From the Corner

DEAL ME IN WEEK 3

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I first encountered E. B. White with this book:

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Then I went on to this book:

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And then this one:

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I read all three of these when I was in grade school – which was a long time ago.  I then re-read them years later when I had kids of my own.  Each book contains a sweetness and a bittersweetness written with a style that says great writing isn’t just for adults nor are children’s books just for children.

After all these years, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of White’s short stories, “The Second Tree From the Corner”  in my collection, Best American Short Stories of the Century.  And even more pleasantly surprised that I got to read it for Week 3 of my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story Project when I drew the King of Hearts.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

“Second Tree” is a gentle story told from the point of view of mild-mannered Trexler as he visits his psychiatrist.  We don’t know much of Trexler’s personal life nor why he is seeing a psychiatrist.  We do know that Trexler and his doctor approach life from different perspectives.  During their session, Trexler ever so slowly moves his chair away from the doctor.  The doctor immediately determines that Trexler is afraid of him and points this out.  Later, when Trexler turns the table (so to speak) on his psychiatrist, the doctor slowly inches his chair backwards.

I like White’s (and Trexler’s) take on this idea that the fulfillment one might get out of life does not have to be steeped in charting goals and walking a path set in stone along the way to great achievements:

Trexler found himself renewed by the remembrance that what he wanted was at once great and microscopic, and that although it borrowed from the nature of large deeds and of youthful love and of old songs and early intimations, it was not any one of these things, and that it had not been isolated or pinned down, and that a man who attempted to define it in the privacy of a doctor’s office would fall flat on his face.

The story begins with the the doctor asking Trexler if he has any bizarre thoughts.  Trexler gives an answer eventually although it’s only to the reader in the final line of the story, not the doctor:

He crossed Madison, boarded a downtown bus, and rode all the way to Fifty-second Street before he had a thought that could rightly have been called bizarre.

In between, the reader gets great writing, a wonderful character and a story set in New York City.  Personally, I couldn’t ask for much more.

Bradbury of the Month – January: There Will Come Soft Rains

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the stories I’ve read so far this year for my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story Project and I have no regrets having no multi-story authors; however, in the past,  I have enjoyed reading more than one story from several authors.  As a result, I’ve decided to add an “Annual Featured Author” page to Mirror With Clouds.  In 2015, my featured author will be Ray Bradbury.  My plan is to read and post each month about something Bradbury has written.  Since he has written a very large number of short stories, I have a feeling that most of my posts will consist of these.

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For January, I read his story “There Will Come Soft Rains”.  I found it included in my anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  It contains many of the characteristics traditionally associated with Bradbury: a look into the future, the effects of technology, along with a little humanity.  The humanity part of this story took a slight turn.  A house in the story seemed to take on some human characteristics.  I had to debate in my mind, and to a certain extent I still am, as to whether the house could be considered anthropomorphic.  It makes breakfast, it feeds the dog, and it fights fires – performing all of this in a high-tech manner:

Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls.  Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. Martinis manifested on an oaken bench with egg-salad sandwiches.  Music played.

The house reads poetry, also.  The story’s title comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale.  The poem begins with “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground/And swallows circling with their shimmering sounds…”.

The poem chillingly ends with “And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,/Would scarcely know that we were gone.”

The intriguing aspect of the debate that is still going on in my head as to the humanity of the house revolves around the fact that no real human beings exist in the story.

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Martha Gellhorn: Miami-New York

DEAL ME IN  WEEK 2 – QUEEN OF HEARTS

It’s only because I’ve been sitting up all night in a plane.

With this final line of Martha Gellhorn’s short story “Miami-New York”, she proves she can be as much a master of understatement as her second husband, Ernest Hemingway.  If I did the calculations correctly, Gellhorn was Hemingway’s third wife.

In the story, Kate Merlin does a little more than sit up all night in a plane. She sleeps some. And she spends a significant part of the night making out with the stranger sitting next to her.

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In fact, the bulk of the story is Kate and John’s makeout session.  Gellhorn wonderfully weaves back and forth between Kate and John Hanley’s thoughts while their lips are locked. This dialogue of the minds goes something like this:

She thought:

He took everything so calmly; did he imagine that she always kissed the man sitting next to her on the night plane from Miami?

He thought:

There was nothing else they could do on a plane, which was a pity, but it was foolish to worry about something you couldn’t have. Just be very damn grateful, he thought, that it’s as fine as it is.

The story’s point of view reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse where it seems to switch mid-sentence.  One minute the reader gets the disappointment Kate feels with her marriage (hence the kissing a stranger all night) and the next, John’s mind wanders back to the war from which he is returning.

In addition to their individual lives, they both have thoughts about the two of them together.  She begins thinking of what things might be like after they land in New York.  Laughing, talking, museums, pleasant little walks are included in Kate’s thoughts.  John has thoughts of – well – a hotel.

This story is included in my Best American Short Stories of the Century anthology and prior to that was included in the Best American Short Stories from 1948.  I have a feeling it may have been considered “racy” back in the late 1940’s and admit that I got a little nervous when Kate and John realize they could move the armrest that was between them.  Even though it’s at night and Gellhorn makes the point that the stewardess turns off the lights, other people are in the vicinity of their seats. I couldn’t help but wonder what others might have thought.  Maybe they were all asleep.

They do eventually land and some resolution to their “relationship” is reached, but go and find out for yourself how things end.  In a word, this story is a gem!

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My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

For readable and enjoyable non-fiction, one can’t do much better than Laura Hillenbrand.  Her book Seabiscuit pulled me into history and horse racing like I never thought a book could.  Now, I’ve finally read her second book Unbroken, the story of WWII POW and Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini.  In the same manner as Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand pulls all of her research into a tense, tragic, but ultimately uplifting, story.

In describing the Japanese prison camp, Kwajalein, here’s the one paragraph from the book that, to me, embodies the theme of Hillenbrand’s story and Zamperini’s life:

On Kwajalein, Louis and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people:  dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.  The stubborn retention of it,even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can keep a man alive long past the point when he should have died.  The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.  In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

This “stubborn retention” of dignity plays the key role in Zamperini’s experience as an Olympic runner, his month long struggle to live stranded on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific, and his grueling years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. As I read the story a question kept coming to my mind: was Zamperini’s resilient stubbornness inherent in his personality or was it a result of his environment or relationships as a child?  While Hillenbrand doesn’t explicitly answer this question, she gives the impression that perhaps it was a little of both.  As a child, he was quite the “terror” and could have very well ended up in juvenile prison; however, his brother, Pete, took an interest in him and encouraged him to channel his activities into running.  He was extremely close to Pete for the rest of their lives. Incidentally, Zamperini just died this past year at the age of 97.  In his seventies, he continued running and even took up skateboarding.  He was known to climb trees into his nineties.

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I have seen the recent film version of this book and it is well-made.  The main difference would be that the movie does not give much detail into his life after the war in which he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism until his conversion to Christianity several years later.  I would say that the religious imagery in the movie is as powerful as anything that could have been spoken outright, though.