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In her short story “Dr. Livingston’s Grotto”, Normandi Ellis elevates the natural world to the supernatural with only a little bit of whimsy – nothing magical. And this is no small feat.
Dr. Livingston wanders through his yard and falls through a hole in the ground into what he presumes to be an unknown section of the Kentucky Mammoth Caves. The hole in the roof of the cave is too far for him to climb back out – so he is stuck until someone finds him. He takes in his surroundings as best he can in the darkness becoming more intrigued than frightened.
When his wife finally finds him and makes plans to rescue him with a rope, much to her surprise, Dr. Livingston requests that she bring him his saxophone and lower it into the cave. He then takes the rope and instrument to an underground stream with fish and newts that don’t have eyes. There, he plays his saxophone as the cave provides him with the inspiration he needs to make up his own songs:
He blew into it slowly. It was a sweet cry – a baleful, beautiful, resonant sound. He sat quietly a moment, listening to its echo. Music flowed through his veins like dark water, etching out secret caverns, filling him with wonder.
The contrast Ellis makes between the eyeless cave-life and the sound of the saxophone paints this world with strange strokes- a world where asking for a saxophone instead of a rescue makes sense.
According to the introduction to this story in the collection Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs, Normandi Ellis grew up in Franfort, Kentucky and studied journalism at the University of Kentucky. After traveling the world extensively, she made her way back to Kentucky to live on a farm and write. Much of her writing involves the customs, practices and deities of Ancient Egypt.
I read this story as a result of selecting the Four of Hearts for Week 9 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
I wanted something to happen which might have the effect of freeing both Wuthering Heights and the Grange of Mr. Heathcliff, quietly; leaving us as we had been prior to his advent. His visits were a continual nightmare to me, and, I suspected, to my master also. His abode at the Heights was an oppression past explaining. I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy.
There’s the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished and that seems to be the case for Old Mr. Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. When he brings home the gypsy orphan boy, Heathcliff, he starts in motion what might be called a tour de force of creepy dysfunction.
Probably since high school English, I’ve heard of Heathcliff and Catherine as the epitome of tortured love. Now that I’ve read their story all of these years later, I can say that whoever said that wasn’t kidding. The foggy moor, the dark and cloudy nights, the full moons and the large old houses all coincide very well with the eerie storms raging in the minds and souls of the principle characters, not least of which is Heathcliff.
The families involved in the story live their lives mostly secluded from the rest of the world. Is the seclusion a result of the dysfunction or the cause of it? As with questions like this, I don’t think there is an answer; however, mulling it over can give literary and pychology types hours of fascination. I found it interesting that Lockwood, the gentleman to whom the story is being told, briefly contemplates marrying into the family and this is after he knows their story. I think it says more about the institution of marriage during the early 1800’s than about his questionable judgement – although maybe it says a little of both.
The servant Nelly Dean gives one of the better “narrator” performances that I’ve read in a while. Being both involved in the daily lives of the characters but also detached due to her servant status provides an interesting perspective.
For much of the novel, hope seems something far away or even non-existent. However, I always like stories that can find a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. When the younger Cathy begins taking an interest in her cousin Hareton’s education and teaches him to read, it seems something good might come of this spooky mess.
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I once saw Mark Twain’s short story “The Diary of Adam and Eve” performed as a play. Now that I have actually read the story, I am recalling that the play didn’t stray far from the original. It kept the humor. It kept the touching ending. It didn’t try to add any moral lessons outside of the satirical ones included in the original story. Considering the play was sponsored by a church, I’m looking back and thinking of it as surprisingly refreshing, now. It was mostly entertaining – just as the original is.
Much of the humor comes from Adam’s perspective and his perplexity at his new companion whom he considers to be more of an intruder. He doesn’t understand Eve’s logic as to why a tiger should be called a tiger simply because it looks like a tiger. Without turning Adam into a complete idiot, Twain tends to give Eve the brains of the couple even if her logic might warrant some questioning.
Twain then moves slowly from satirical to heart-felt in a manner I found likable. It’s a slow transition from Adam and Eve irritating and misunderstanding each other to realizing they need each other. It’s something Adam doesn’t fully understand but that Eve decides to call “love”.
In spite of Eve’s constant talking, Twain allows Adam to get in the last poignant words:
Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.
I read this story because I selected the Four of Spades for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. “The Diary of Adam and Eve” is included in my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
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I want more Wodehouse. “The Pitcher and the Plutocrat” is my first work by P. G. Wodehouse. According to the fantastic Short Story Magic Tricks, this is an early work of Wodehouse and he only gets better. If that’s the case, then I can’t wait to read more.
In a story with some little twists and turns, baseball brings together a young man and woman who might not be together, otherwise. I found the events by which this happens to be hilarious. I also enjoy the role baseball plays in the story and that it’s simply a role. A specific game is not the entire story.
In just this story, Wodehouse humor has sucked me in. With all due respect to Jersey City, sentences like this one give me endless chuckles:
Wherever civilization reigned, and Jersey City, one question alone was on every lip: Who would win?
Or this funny little bit of conversation:
“Oh, Clarence,” she cried, “my precious angel wonder-child, I don’t know how to begin.”
“Begin just like that,” said Clarence approvingly. “It’s fine. You can’t beat it.”
What P. G. Wodehouse stories have you read? Feel free to recommend some, I’m feeling a Wodehouse week coming on sometime in the near future.
I read “The Pitcher and the Plutocrat” after drawing the Three of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar.
Now I move on to the final four stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories:
I guess I like dark humor more than I like plain old dark. This one is very dark and very funny. I’m still not sure, though, about what seems to be Millhauser’s infatuation with suicide.
Another story that I don’t completely understand but I’ll give it a go. A town has what could be considered a park known as “The Place”. It has some surreal, fantastical elements that attract some people to it whole-heartedly, some only half-way and others not at all. The narrator tends to lose his relationships to “The Place”. I’m going way out on a limb, here, but “The Place” seems to be where people with great imaginations go.
“An American Tall Tale”
Paul Bunyan enters a contest with his ne’er-do-well book-loving brother, James. I would consider this story delightful. Writing in typical tall-tale style, I have come to appreciate Millhauser’s ability to put himself in different voices while continuing to maintain his own.
“The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama”
From the title, it comes as no surprise that this story has a Buddhist flavor and along with it some beautiful writing and ideas – lots of “knowing and not knowing”. Prince Siddhartha Gautama goes through a journey of inward-looking and self-discovery much to the dismay of his friends and family. I’m tempted to say this is my favorite of this bunch; however, it’s not as much of a standout as some of my other favorites.
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“The way I look at it, Tub, no man is an island. You’ve got to trust someone.”
In 2014, I read Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” and found it darkly humorous. For Week 6 of Deal Me In 2016, I selected the Nine of Spades which corresponds to Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow”. I discovered the same dark humor included here.
Any time a story contains dark humor and blood and snow, I think of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen – especially Fargo. So it came as no surprise when they kept popping into my head as I read “Hunters in the Snow”.
Kenny, Tub and Frank go hunting on a winter day in Washington State. By way of an accident (or perhaps it could be called more of a misunderstanding), one of the friends is shot. The humor comes in the ability of Wolff to juxtapose the life-endangerment of the wounded friend with the need of the other two, on the way to the hospital, to stop at local diners to get coffee, breakfast, warm up and discuss a few personal situations. With each stop, they check on their still-living friend in the back of their pickup truck and wonder why his blankets have blown off.
Based on the personal situations of the two friends, it’s not difficult to realize that neither of them are exceptionally bright. But to my surprise, all three of the characters are likable. For comical stories, it doesn’t get much better than this one.
“Hunters in the Snow” is included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
The final TBR Triple Dog Dare is sponsored by James at James Reads Books so I thought I would post an update. The Dare requires participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. While I can’t say the number of books I’ve read so far is anything to post about, I will say that I’ve become very inspired to read the books that are already on my shelf.
I’ve read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and am almost finished with Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories. The Millhauser book I am counting even though it’s from the library. I’ve had it since before the beginning of 2016. I planned on reading Jack London’s Martin Eden, also from the library; however, it had to be returned before I got a chance to read it (I couldn’t renew it). So the London novel will have to wait until the spring.
Next up will be the Bronte sisters. I’ve had Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on my shelf for years. It’s high time I read them.
Continuing with Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories, here are my thoughts about four more stories:
Levinson is quite proud of moving to a small town which perhaps could also be considered a suburb of a large town. Millhauser includes tons of small town details about Levinson’s neighbors and streets and shopping mall. As the story progresses, the small town changes almost before his eyes. And keeps changing. All of these changes get the full Millhauser detail treatment; however, I’m never sure of the point Millhauser is trying to make. Unless of course, all of these constant changes have no point. That’s a possibility.
This is the retelling of the fairy tale so the plot isn’t necessarily new although it might have a couple of different twists. What I thought was intriguing was the detail with which Millhauser describes the doubt and uncertainty the Prince has about Rapunzel. On a humorous note, the Prince actually enjoys climbing up the tower more than he does seeing Rapunzel. Meanwhile, Rapunzel wonders what takes him so long.
This story took me a while to understand and I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I still understand it. This is my take, though. As a kid, so much anticipation went into the start of summer vacation. An anticipation that many times never lived up to the hype by the end of the summer. In the story, this type of anticipation seems to cause a town to produce paranormal activity they can never quite figure out. My evidence for this interpretation comes from this paragraph – which I’m pretty sure will rank up there as one of my favorites this year:
By the middle of August we felt the exhaustion of adventures that had never taken us far enough. At the same time we were inflamed by a kind of sharp, overripe alertness to possibilities untried. In the languor and stillness of perfect afternoons, we could already feel the last days of summer, coming toward us with their burden of regret. What had we done, really? What had we ever done? There was a sense that it all should have led to something, a sense that a necessary culmination had somehow failed to come about. And always the days passed, like riddles we would never solve.
This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s summer stories – from a different perspective. And of these four stories, this is my favorite.
Is this the story of a chauvinistic polygamist or just a man who appreciates feminine complexities? Or put another way: how many wives does this dude really have? Readers, themselves, can be the judge.
For the February edition of The Alice Munro Story of the Month, I selected “Meneseteung” which is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.
After reading “Axis” in January, I looked forward to reading another Munro story. “Meneseteung” includes Munro’s genius just as the previous story did and, just like “Axis”, this short story would be a novel for any other author.
Almeda Roth lives in 19th century Ontario and has some literary success getting a volume of poetry published. She lives by herself and has a gentleman friend and prominent businessman call on her from time to time. The idea of marriage vaguely arises on occasion but nothing really comes of it.
The odd aspect of “Meneseteung” is that Munro seems to purposefully keep the reader detached from Almeda’s story. Something about combining history, literature, the role of women and the Canadian landscape keeps this story compelling but I couldn’t find any type of emotional attachment apart from the interest the outside narrator happens to have in recreating Almeda’s history. That may be what Munro is going for here:
I thought that there wasn’t anybody alive in the world but me who would know this, who would make the connection. And I would be the last person to do so. But perhaps this isn’t so. People are curious. A few people are. They will be driven to find things out, even trivial things. They will put things together, knowing all along that they may be mistaken. You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish.
Like “Axis”, the title is taken from a geographical landmark. In this case it’s the Meneseteung River that runs through Ontario.
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Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.
Yes, this is Flannery O’Connor, so I’ve come to expect that at some point I’ll end up gasping in disbelief at something she writes – like the above quotation from her story “Revelation”.
In “Revelation”, Mrs. Turpin and her husband, Claud, sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. In her head, Mrs. Turpin performs a detailed review of all of the other people waiting, determining for herself to which class of people each person belongs. It comes as no surprise to the reader that Mrs. Turpin puts herself in the better category and most of the others in something less.
Eventually, Mrs. Turpin provokes an incident in which an insult causes her to confront her arrogance. O’Connor’s creative brilliance makes Mrs. Turpin unlikable but relatable. If the reader is honest with themselves, they will realize that there is a little of Mrs. Turpin in everyone. In an unusual, but believable, twist, Mrs. Turpin takes the insult to heart as she understands there is some truth to it. She makes no admission of guilt to anyone but herself.
During her internal turmoil, Mrs. Turpin sees a vision that she grudgingly accepts as being from God (she does the proverbial fist-shake). She sees the saints go marching in to heaven; however, there is a different order to the march:
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
I read this story for Week 5 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project when I selected the Eight of Clubs. “Revelation” is included in my copy of The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.