Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser – Part 1

Several of the Steven Millhauser stories I read last year, in addition to “Home Run”, which I read for week 4 of Deal Me In 2016, are included in Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories. Since I already had the book from the library, I thought I would finish reading the rest of the stories. Here are some thoughts about four more of the stories in the collection:

“Sons and Mothers”

Lots and lots of details, which I believe is a Millhauser trademark, provide for an interesting perspective from the narrator. He is visiting his mother for the first time in a while. From the descriptions of his mother’s house, it almost seems haunted and his mother is the resident ghost. While ghosts appear in other Millhauser stories, the mother in this one is fully alive even if she may have some sort of dementia or senility. The narrator is caught between an obligation to his mother that is deep and sincere and an obligation that is simply an obligation. The jarring, and slightly humorous, ending helps the reader understand in which of these “camps” the narrator actually resides.

“Mermaid Fever”

A real, but dead, mermaid washes up on the shore of a New England town. The town makes the body into an exhibit at a local museum and it becomes quite a hit. A frenzy of all things mermaid takes over the town. I’m not sure if this was Millhauser’s intent but the craziness reminds me of the “fever” that took place with the Twilight Saga a few years ago – with mermaids in the place of vampires.

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“The Wife and the Thief”

Of these four stories, this is my favorite. The entire story is in the mind of a wife who can’t sleep and is certain a thief has broken into the house. She doesn’t wake her sleeping husband but continues to debate in her head whether the noises she is hearing are just the house or a burglar. The lengths to which she goes to justify to herself that it is a thief or that it’s not is both great comedy and great suspense.

“A Report on Our Recent Troubles”

A wave of suicides becomes contagious. With each new note, the story becomes more grim and bizarre. This one was just too dark for me.

 

“Lazy Laurence” – Chapter 39 of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

I’ve finished Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women; however, instead of a wrap-up post, I’m posting about one last chapter that stood out to me. Chapter 39, called “Lazy Laurence”, finds Laurie in Europe after his marriage proposal to Jo is turned down. Prior to the chapter, Laurie finds Jo’s sister, Amy, the youngest of the March girls, in Nice with her wealthy Aunt.

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This entire chapter is one long conversation between Laurie and Amy. Alcott manages to put so much into this conversation, yet she doesn’t overdo it. It’s just right. She continues to make Laurie very likable even if he has just a tinge of arrogance. Amy tends to have a little bit of arrogance, herself; however, during this conversation we see both of them come to terms with themselves – or at least start to.

Alcott gives this scene in Nice a certain combination of sophistication and coziness. At times, shadows fall across the faces of Laurie and Amy and at other times, small twinkles appear in their eyes.

The flirting between the two doesn’t get old. It’s humorous and touching without being sappy such as when Laurie asks Amy how she wants to sketch him:

“How provoking you are! I don’t approve of cigars, and I will only allow it on condition that you let me put you into my sketch; I need a figure.” (Amy)

“With all the pleasure in life. How will you have me? full-length, or three quarters; on my head or my heels? I should respectfully suggest a recumbent posture, then put yourself in also, and call it, ‘Dolce far niente'”. (Laurie)

Ah yes! “Dolce far niente” – so much can be said in moments of “sweet idleness”.

 

 

 

Steven Millhauser: Home Run (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 4)

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…man did he ever jack it outta here, a dinger from McSwinger, a whopper from the Big Bopper, going, going, the stands are emptying out, the ball up in the mesosphere, the big guy blistered it, he powdered it, the ground crew picking up bottles and paper cups and peanut shells and hot dog wrappers, power-washing the  seats, you can bet people’ll be talking about this one for a long time to come…

When is a gimmick not a gimmick? I would say “when it works”. Steven Millhauser’s “Home Run”, a story of four pages and one sentence definitely has a gimmick aspect to it. Does this gimmick work? I would say that it almost does.

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The story is from the point of view of a baseball announcer detailing player McCloskey’s home run – which explains the use of one long sentence. Even though I was reading this to myself (as opposed to out loud), I felt out of breath in my head from not stopping at any periods, question marks, or explanation points. There are only commas. If one truly wanted to get picky, one could say that it really isn’t one sentence. It’s simply a bunch of sentences and phrases put together with commas. But still, Millhauser nicely gives the reader the phrasing and cadence of a baseball announcer.

Another nice touch is that while McCloskey and the announcer and the annoucer’s side kick, Jimmy, are all characters in the story, Millhauser makes the plot revolve around the actual baseball – which just keeps going until the story ends. I enjoyed the way Millhauser continues to use space hyperbole such as the stratosphere, mesosphere, “past Jupiter, see ya Saturn, …past the Milky Way” and numerous other galaxies and stars to track the baseball’s path. I say this is hyperbole but having read other Millhauser stories, it’s hard to say whether this is just for literary effect or whether the ball really has launched into outer space. But with Millhauser, it doesn’t really matter.

I read this story when I drew the 8 of Diamonds for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. In four weeks, this is my third Diamond card. I really did shuffle the deck. “Home Run” is included in Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories which I borrowed from the public library.  My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

J. F. Powers: Jamesie (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 3)

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I drew the Ten of Diamonds this week for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. Diamonds is the suit that corresponds to stories about baseball and for Week 3, I read J. F. Powers’ “Jamesie”. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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“Jamesie” appears to be at least somewhat autobiographical in that it takes place in Jacksonville, Illinois where Powers grew up. It also is set during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge which is when Powers would have been the same age as his protagonist, Jamesie, and J. F. Powers full name is James Farl Powers.

The story is another age-old tale like T. C. Boyle’s “The Hector Quesadilla Story”. This time it’s the story of a young kid realizing that his hero isn’t as noble and righteous as he wanted him to be. Lefty, the pitcher for the Jayville Indies, tends to give Jamesie a good deal of attention for a locally famous minor-league baseball player. Lefty gets Jamesie in the games for free and always makes a point to talk to him.

What Powers does amazingly well is let the readers understand why Jamesie would revere Lefty so much and at the same time, make the readers realize that Lefty isn’t really a good person.

The story is told from the point of view of Jamesie, whose mother is dead and whose father is distant. He is on his own to make money so he can buy each new volume of the serial story Baseball Bill. He has an Aunt Kate who at least tries to be a mother to him and two uncles that tend to make fun of him.  When Lefty falls from grace, Jamesie realizes that the other adults in his life were right. That’s pretty much a kick in the gut to him.

In spite of the sadness and frustration that hang over the story, a section in which Jamesie and his friend, Francis, play out Baseball Bill in the backyard made me smile:

“And who’s behind this, Blackie?”

“I don’t know.”

“Say it’s the powerful gambling syndicate.”

“It’s them.”

“Ah, ha! Knock the ash off your cigar.”

“Have I got one?”

“Yes, and you’ve got strong drink on your breath, too.”

“Whew!”

Blackie should have fixed him with his small, piglike eyes.

“Fix me with your small, piglike eyes.”

“Wait a minute, Jamesie!”

“Bill. Go ahead. Fix me.”

“OK But you don’t get to be Bill all the time.”

“Now blow your foul breath in my face.”

“There!”

“Now ask me to have a cigar. Go ahead.”

It kind of reminds me of when my friends and I would argue over who got to be Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.

 

“Literary Lessons” – Chapter 27 of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

“Literary Lessons”, chapter 27 of Little Women, is another gem of a chapter. As I’ve become a lover of short stories over the years, I find appealing Louisa May Alcott’s ability to write each chapter as a short story yet continue to tell an overarching story as the chapters are connected together.

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It’s both a pleasant surprise and a little funny that Jo gets her story published after she rips it apart and makes it what everyone else in her family thinks it should be. I was also thrilled when she got payed $300 for it. While that seems a lot of money for Civil War times, I always find it good when an artist-even a fictional one -is able to make a living.

I think, though, that Alcott asks in this chapter how much art should an artist sacrifice for the sake of making a living. And, as with any question like this, she doesn’t give a concrete answer.

For myself, I’m able to see both sides in Jo’s dilemma and I’m glad that Alcott seems to find humor in the situation even if she might have been expressing some frustration in writing this chapter:

“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she (Jo) said stoutly; “and I’ve got the joke on my side, after all; for the parts that were taken straight out of real life, are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head, are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender and true.’ So I’ll comfort myself with that; and, when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”

And again check out Hamlette’s post about this chapter and the subsequent discussion.

As I continue reading Little Women, I’m missing Laurie, the boy next door, while he’s away at college.

Sena Jeter Naslund: The Perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 2)

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For Week 2 of Deal Me In 2016, I drew the Six of Hearts which corresponds to the short story “The Perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor” by Sena Jeter Naslund. The stories in the Hearts section of my Deal Me In list for 2016 are written by authors with a Kentucky (my current home state) connection. This story is included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. According to Grubb’s introduction to this story and Wikipedia, Naslund teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.  Also according to Wikipedia, in 2005, she was named Poet Laureate of Kentucky.  My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

The story, which is set in Louisville, begins with the narrator listening to her aging mother play Chopin’s Valse No. 14 in E Minor on the piano. She notices that her mother is playing it more perfectly than she has every played it in the past.

This sets in motion the events of the story that go from realism to hyper-realism to magical realism. While it’s not spelled out in detail, the reader gets the impression that the narrator is concerned about her mother’s aging.

As the story progresses, the mother performs some other tasks that she would not ordinarily be able to do: moves a rock in the garden (a magical rock, perhaps?), single-handedly throws (including cooking) a huge dinner party for many friends and family that the narrator has not seen in years, and somehow makes the chrysanthemum’s in the garden bloom out of season.

What makes this story unusual is it’s positive and downright happy tone in the face of aging and death. The mother’s interaction with one of her guests – one with a nose like Frederick Chopin’s- is nothing short of delightful. And of course, she plays the piece for the rest of her guests:

I held my breath on and on as each passage of loveliness, the lightest, most gay of sounds, swept past. But where was the pedal touch on the fourth of the repeated notes? Of course it was withheld, withheld till the phrase was introduced for the last time, and then the pedal, a suggestion of poignant prolonging, a soupcon of romantic rubato, a wobble in rhythm, the human touch in the final offering of art. Then it ended.

Naslund also portrays something that I think she intends to be real as opposed to fantasy: the mother and daughter truly enjoy each other.

This alone makes the story refreshing.

“Castles in the Air” – Chapter 13 of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been enjoyable reading over the holidays. Because of the holidays, I haven’t made as much progress as I would have liked but if it takes a little longer, that’s all right. So far it’s been worth it.

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As I’m making my way through the novel, I’ve had a few thoughts about what to write. There is, of course, the proverbial “fear of my man card being taken away” for reading this; however, it hit me the other day that those who would question my manhood for reading Little Women have probably already questioned my manhood for reading – period.

So we can move on.

One aspect of the novel that has stood out to me so far is the manner in which Marmee will occasionally teach a life lesson to one of her daughters and it seems as though it’s actually Louisa May Alcott, herself, teaching life lessons to her readers. Ordinarily, I find this type of didacticism irritating; however, Alcott makes it work by not having too much of it and keeping it to the point. And no matter how one might regard these from a literary standpoint, the life lessons are ones worth learning.

I like the characters and find the book full of charm and fun and insight; however, for me, the novel went to a higher level when I reached chapter 13 which is entitled “Castles in the Air”.  In this chapter, Laurie, the boy next door, joins the March girls outdoors while they are working on reading and writing projects. As Laurie joins in the conversation, the five kids ramble about their dreams and what their perfect life would look like. These perfect lives become their “castles in the air”:

“We’re an ambitious set, aren’t we? Every one of us, but Beth, wants to be rich and famous, and gorgeous in every respect. I do wonder if any of us will ever get our wishes,” said Laurie, chewing grass, like a meditative calf.

Alcott puts together such a realistic conversation between the teenagers with nothing contrived or manufactured. They argue a little but what caught my attention is that they truly listen to each other. They discuss what sacrifices they might need to make for their dreams and those circumstances for which they might have to sacrifice their dreams. It’s a chapter that I would want my kids to read (two of my daughters have read it). And the decision Laurie makes at the end? Very moving.

I at least plan for one more post when I finish the novel but, who knows, there could be another chapter like this one that I have to post about before the end.

Hamlette over at The Edge of the Precipice has excellent posts about each chapter of Little Women from her Read-A-Long last year. Here’s her take on “Castles in the Air”.