Ernest Hemingway: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 9

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I drew the Seven of Clubs for Week 9 of my 2015 Deal Me In Short Story project and that corresponded to Ernest Hemingway’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”.  I put this story on my list for two reasons: 1) Hemingway has always been a favorite and 2) I’ve gotten into the habit of putting a Christmas title on my list just for the fun of seeing when it shows up during the year. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Hemingway starts with a great first line:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

The line brings to mind a vague universalism that quickly and seamlessly spirals into Hemingway at his most horrifically raw. On Christmas Day evening, the narrator wanders from a saloon to the emergency room of the local hospital.  A teenage boy has mutilated himself trying to get rid of the “lust” that he considers sinful.  The reader learns of the event from its retelling to the narrator by two doctors.

On the surface, this could simply be a “this is why religion is bad” story; however, as the doctors, one of whom is Jewish, debate the significance of Christmas Day and whether it’s “our Savior” or “your Savior”, the story becomes more than anti-religion.  In retelling the story, one of the doctors brilliantly but unpersuasively states the obvious to the teenager:

If you are religious remember that what you complain of is no sinful state but the means of consummating a sacrament.

While my amateur research tells me that the religious beliefs of Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor were likely very different, it seems they have crossed paths with at least this story.  Both authors focus on the dark side of humanity and its botched attempts to make things right.

If I was to consider this story a favorite, I think I would have to apologize to all of the Joyce Carol Oates fans to whom I’ve said I found her story “The Girl With the Blackened Eye” too disturbing.  So Joyce Carol Oates fans, please accept my apologies.  As a concession, I will have a Joyce Carol Oates ad hoc short story week sometime in March.

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One More Thing by B. J. Novak

B. J. Novak’s collection One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories contains a fun bunch of stories and by “bunch” I mean a lot- 63 stories to be exact.  Novak is best known for his writing and acting work on the American television sitcom The Office. A thank you goes out to Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice for making me aware of this book.

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I found the book to be a notch above the typical stand-up type of material found in the books of many television comedians.  For the most part, the reason would be that these are actually stories and not just funny commentary.  As with any group of 63 stories, some are better than others.

One of them that stood out to me, “Julie and the Warlord”, could have easily been the result of an improvisational suggestion.  I can hear a comedian telling the audience that Julie is a single, twenty-something girl at a nice restaurant on a first date with…and then someone in the audience yells out “a warlord from The Congo”.  And as the story continues, comedy ensues over the dessert menu.

Another one, “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela”, reaches the epitome of political incorrectness; in fact, I thought it went a little too far over the edge but nobody expects television comedians to be the most tasteful group of people.  On the other hand, “Sophia” is the story of a man who buys a female robot that falls in love with him. Where this could have gone down the lewd and crude road (which many of the stories do), it actually ends up being quite sweet.  And then we have “Wikipedia Brown and The Case of the Missing Bicycle” which took me chuckling down memory lane.

I wonder if Novak is writing a novel?  I bet it would be worth reading.

Steven Millhauser: The Wizard of West Orange

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 8

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I selected the Two of Diamonds for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story project which is also my first Wild Card.  I decided to jump into the twenty-first century for this one and read Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange”.  I stumbled upon this story as I browsed my branch of the local library and found the 2008 edition of the Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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I have occasionally heard that there truly exist only thirteen story plots.  I’ve never heard exactly what any of these plots are so I don’t know how true that statement is.  As I’m reading “The Wizard of West Orange”, I found myself thinking that maybe Millhauser has discovered a fourteenth plot because the story is so unusual.  As I read further, I realized that the story did significantly resemble Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; however, “Wizard” contained uniqueness and ingenuity in rare form.

In 1889, the Wizard, while not the protagonist, manages a research laboratory specializing in invention, and among other things, testing a new machine called a phonograph.  This information calls to mind another Wizard from Menlo Park.  I found it interesting that Menlo Park, NJ is also near West Orange, NJ.  In the story, no names are mentioned – he is simply the Wizard.

A research librarian tells the story through his journal entries and he is the character the reader gradually gets to know.  In addition to what could be called the conventional inventions or those machines that have become commonplace in the world, the Wizard and his associates are experimenting with a machine called a haptograph that records sensations to the skin or touch – similar to the way a phonograph records sound or a camera records sight:

Mimicry and invention.  Splendor of the haptograph. Not just the replication of familiar tactile sensations, but capacity to explore new combinations – pressures, touches, never experienced before.  Adventures of feeling. Who can say what new sensations will be awakened, what unknown desires? Unexplored realms of the tangible. The frontiers of touch.

The reader understands that the Wizard is aware of these experiments; however, he isn’t involved in the story to the degree that the narrator and other associates are. He’s simply always there – in the background.  As one might expect with a story like this, not everything goes according to plan. Ultimately, it’s the Wizard that determines how far the experiment will go.

Thinking about the fact that so many of the senses are able to be recorded or replicated, it came to me as a surprise that the recording of touch has never become commonplace. Perhaps that’s why this story seems so unique.

Millhauser is an imagination worth reading.

Bradbury of the Month – February: The Golden Apples of the Sun

It’s February and it is what most people here in the Midwestern United States would consider cold.  So Ray Bradbury’s title “The Golden Apples of the Sun” jumped out at me from the table of contents of my Bradbury story collection and I’m glad it did.  It’s one of the best Bradbury stories I’ve read and most of the ones I’ve read have been very good.

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On the literary merit spectrum, science fiction tends to get the raw end of the deal.  While I’m no literary expert, I have to wonder if the “powers that be” have ever read “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.  It seems to have everything.  A group of astronauts travel to the sun. Their goal is to get a Cup of the sun. This Cup beautifully becomes a Holy Grail of Humanity representing science, religion, philosophy and ultimately the meaning of life – all in one cup. I didn’t get a good feel for how big the cup would be; however, I can’t imagine being able to bring too much of the sun back to Earth so my guess is that it’s quite small.

Bradbury effectively contrasts hot and cold, north and south, and even life and death throughout the plot.  I had a difficult time deciding which paragraph to quote because many of them were so powerful that if I quoted all of them, I would simply be posting the entire story.  As Bradbury frequently expresses a fondness for childhood and summer in his stories, a characteristic of his work that I especially appreciate, I was not surprised to find this in a story about visiting the sun although this passage technically refers to spring:

Spring mornings as a boy he had leaned from his bedroom window into the snow-smelling air to see the sun sparkle the last icicle of winter.  A dripping of white wine, the blood of cool but warming April fell from that clear crystal blade.  Minute by minute, December’s weapon grew less dangerous.  And then at last the icicle fell with the sound of a single chime to the graveled walk below.

I have this story in my collection The Sound of Thunder and Other Stories.  If by chance you have never read any of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, start with this one.  You’ll want to read more.

Sherwood Anderson: The Strength of God

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 7

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In picking the Queen of Clubs for Week 7 of my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story Project, I’ve finally introduced myself to Sherwood Anderson and his stories surrounding Winesburg, Ohio.  “The Strength of God” goes straight to the heart, mind and soul of Winesburg’s Presbyterian minister, The Reverend Curtis Hartman.

Based on this one story, I would say Anderson’s writing style is simple and straightforward. The story itself appears to be part of a larger tale about the Ohio town.  Both Anderson’s style and story remind me of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Other things are going on outside of this story, perhaps in other stories; however, that doesn’t keep “The Strength of God” from standing on its own.

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Through a broken window in his belltower study, the married Reverend Hartman discovers that he can look into the bedroom window of a neighboring house and view a woman lying on her bed.  Nothing happens beyond looking, but the temptation to look induces guilt and torment that almost drives him mad.  I think the reason behind this guilt can be found in what I consider one of the more tragic passages I’ve read in a while:

Resolutely the minister put the thoughts of the woman in the bed out of his mind and began to be something like a lover in the presence of his wife.

Anderson doesn’t portray his minister as less than a lover but he’s not an actual lover.  He is “something like a lover”. What’s actually driving Reverend Hartman mad?  The temptation, the guilt, even sin?  Or is it a marriage of passionless mediocrity?  At least in this story, the reader doesn’t get the wife’s perspective.  What seems like a harmless act perhaps covers major issues with the minister’s character and marriage.  One can also guess that most of the inward turmoil within Reverend Hartman isn’t known to the outside world of Winesburg, Ohio – a town I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

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

Finally finishing “the Jazz Age”…

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I finally finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age.  Here is a quick rundown of each of the stories about which I haven’t already posted:

“May Day” –  For those who think Fitzgerald’s stories are too depressing and his characters too shallow, this isn’t the story that will change their mind.  I can’t get the phrase “I’m a li’l stewed, Edith” out of my head.

“A Diamond As Big As the Ritz” – I read this story prior to blogging.  It’s one of my favorites from this collection and it’s the one, in my opinion, from which a movie should have been made.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – This was the story actually made into a movie – an incredibly long movie for a short story.  I also read this before blogging.  It was an interesting story but I found it too gimmicky.  It wasn’t the only story in this collection I found to be this way.  Sometimes the gimmicks worked, sometimes they didn’t.

“‘O Russett Witch'” –  This story holds the record for longest length of time it’s taken me to read a short story.  It seems to go on and on.  Is Caroline a witch or isn’t she?  I don’t know.  It did contain some beautiful writing, though, such as this paragraph:

The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round. True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth. 

“Mr. Icky: The Quintessence of Quaintness in One Act” – A short story that is an odd and sometimes humorous play.

“Jemina, The Mountain Girl” – An incredibly funny story that reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut would write.  Some from my adopted state, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, might find offense in this story.  I just find it funny.

All in all, Fitzgerald has more of a sense of humor than his Lost Generation cohort Ernest Hemingway.

Here are links to my posts about the other stories in the collection:

The Jelly-Bean

The Camel’s Back

Porcelain and Pink

Tarquin of Cheapside

The Lees of Happiness

Also, check out Hamlette the Dame’s great review of this collection over at The Edge of the Precipice!

Willa Cather: Paul’s Case

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 6

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Willa Cather

Smokey Robinson once sang “…a taste of honey’s worse than none at all”.  Based on her short story “Paul’s Case”, I would bet Willa Cather would have agreed – although, she would probably say a taste of “money” is worse than none at all.  I read this story for Week  6 of Deal Me In 2015.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I had several of Cather’s stories on my Deal Me In 2013 list.  While I enjoyed some of them, others left me a little flat.  Her stories that are set in Nebraska or the Southwest were beautiful and intriguing to me.  In spite of my infatuation with New York City, her stories involving artists in the Big Apple at the turn of the twentieth century just didn’t grab hold of me.

In the case of “Paul’s Case”, though, Cather does something different with New York City.  Paul, a teenager, lives in Pittsburgh and is somewhat of a delinquent at school.  He loves serving as an usher at Carnegie Hall so that he can rub elbows with the rich and famous – both the patrons and the performers.  His awe of the rich lifestyle contrasts with his contempt for his lower income neighborhood and school.

Cather simultaneously casts a small spark of sympathy for Paul’s situation (or “case” as the title suggests) and a repulsion for Paul’s attitude and character.  By less than noble means, Paul manages to run away to New York City and live the high life – for a little while.  As with many teenagers, Paul doesn’t realize that there is such a thing as a future and that his means will eventually run out:

It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him.  His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could.

Since I’m on an F. Scott Fitzgerald kick, I’ll bring up the fact that Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read Onindicates that Fitzgerald “adored” Willa Cather.  Corrigan even goes on to say that some of the characters in The Great Gatsby were inspired by characters in Cather’s stories (Corrigan bases this on letters Fitzgerald wrote to Cather).  Paul in “Paul’s Case” has some definite Jay Gatsby attributes; however, I would guess that Gatsby ultimately gets more reader sympathy than Paul does.