Willa Cather: Double Birthday (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 26)

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Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times – there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen.

With a beginning paragraph like that, I was counting on a fantastic short story and Willa Cather’s 1928 “Double Birthday” didn’t disappoint. Albert Engelhardt and his Uncle Albert remain with those “a little out of tune with the times” as Cather puts it. As a result of this, they don’t have the money that they once did. The story is set in motion when the two Alberts invite Judge Hammersley to their birthday party for themselves. They both have the same birthday as the title suggests. Judge Hammersley is included in that other group of people that have kept up with the times and made a fortune. Not unexpectedly, he looks at his former friends with disdain.

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As I’ve stated before, I thoroughly enjoy those post World War I authors that put the world’s disillusionment at the time into their writing. “Double Birthday” is just such an example. The Judge’s daughter, Marjorie, remembering her times with the Alberts when she was young, recognizes the person she has become as she has grown older. One who has similar attitudes as her father.

To me, Marjorie’s understanding of both her family and the Alberts gives this story one of the most beautiful accounts of redemption I’ve read in a while when she decides to attend the very small birthday party – and ultimately rekindle the friendship. Eloquently, she sums up the changes in the story’s present world as well as the changes between the two families:

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

I think “Double Birthday” will be a contender for my favorite story of the year. It is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it this week when I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 26 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.

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Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal

“Sometimes I think Odo breathes time, in and out, in and out. I sit next to him and I watch him weave a blanket made of minutes and hours. And while we’re on top of a boulder watching a sunset, he’ll make a gesture with his hand, just something in the air, and I swear he’s working an angle or smoothing a surface of a sculpture whose shape I can’t see. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m in the presence of a weaver of time and a maker of space. That’s enough for me.”

Yann Martel’s latest novel The High Mountains of Portugal contains journeys, dreams and a memorable chimpanzee. With skill, Martel rolls the natural and the supernatural into a tale of both wonder and tragedy, loss and discovery.

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I think it’s that ‘discovery’ aspect that fascinated me the most. The story is told in three sections, each with a connection to the previous one. In 1904, a man takes a new-fangled automobile into the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a religious relic of the Seventeenth Century. In 1938, a pathologist in Braganca, Portugal has a bizarre but strangely beautiful and revealing dream about an autopsy. In 1981, an aging Canadian senator buys a chimpanzee and moves to the High Mountains of Portugal where he had been born.  The novel ends with a discovery of a different kind – also from the Seventeenth Century. In between, the characters learn and think and deal with the mystery of life.

Peter, the Canadian senator, and Odo, his chimpanzee companion give the novel it’s most endearing aspects. The relationship gives Peter a new outlook on life – one that has some optimism and peace. This novel is a brilliant portrayal of a world that can make sense in spite of circumstances that point to the contrary. Martel doesn’t make light of life’s tragedies and confusions, he simply paints them on a narrative canvas that contains hope.

Caroline Gordon: Old Red (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 25)

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Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him, of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore….But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.

Something is a little tragic about one who is unable to share their passions with those to whom they are closest. Or to have someone close completely unable to understand. That’s the situation with Aleck Maury in Caroline Gordon’s short story “Old Red”. While visiting the family of his late wife along with his daughter and son-in-law, Maury reminisces about his marriage while longing for the great outdoors – fishing and hunting,that is, not simply a passion but a part of who he is.

His wife Mary felt Aleck could make something more of himself if he didn’t love fishing and hunting so much. The title comes from Maury remembering an elusive red fox that he could never quite catch. It’s very easy to say that the red fox represents that disillusionment with the American Dream about which so many post World War I authors wrote. However, the story’s introduction by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp refers to Aleck as a “thoroughly Southern pantheist”.  His gods are the outdoors. While the unreachable American Dream may fall into this category, I think the fox represents more of a mystery that can’t be solved or a question that can’t be answered.

And unlike those around him, Aleck Maury is content with the mystery, content with no answers.

The Best American Catholic Short Stories: A Sheed & Ward Collection

According to Wikipedia, Caroline Gordon and her husband occasionally entertained Ernest Hemingway in their Kentucky home. This story has a Hemingway-esque feel from a feminine point of view – which makes the story quite fascinating.

I read this story because I selected the  Three of Spades in my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by the above mentioned Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

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What the dump reader doubted was the Church: its politics, its social interventions, its manipulations of history and sexual behavior – which would have been difficult for the fourteen-year-old Juan Diego to say in Dr. Vargas’s office, where the atheist doctor and the Iowa missionary were squaring off against each other.

Most dump kids were believers; maybe you have to believe in something when you see so many discarded things. And Juan Diego knew what every dump kid (and every orphan) knows: every last thing thrown away, every person or thing that isn’t wanted, may have been wanted once – or, in different circumstances, might have been wanted.

The dump reader had saved books from the burning, and he’d actually read the books. Don’t ever think a dump reader is incapable of belief. It takes an eternity to read some books, even (or especially) some books saved from burning.

After reading John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany a few years ago and determining that it was a favorite, I tried reading a couple of Irving’s other novels and just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind or right time of life but I decided I’d give his latest novel Avenue of Mysteries a try. I’m glad I did and now I feel like I might need to give those other novels another attempt.

In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving introduces Juan Diego, an acclaimed, but aging, Mexican-American author (although he wouldn’t like the term ‘Mexican-American’) who is travelling to The Philippines to fulfill a promise he made to an American draft dodger in 1968 when he was a young teenage orphan living with his mind-reading younger sister in a Mexican dump.

Throughout his quest, as Juan Diego messes around with his beta-blockers and discovers two odd female companions for his travels, he dreams about his childhood, his sister, and a vast array of characters of varying spiritual faiths and ideas. The reader is under the impression that the dreams are re-telling the past; however, on occasion, one does wonder what is dream and what is truly flashback. Irving isn’t afraid to throw in the supernatural for some magical and/or hyper realism. A lesser story-teller would not have been able to do this without making the plot seem too convenient or coincidental. Irving makes it work well.

Another testament to his story-telling ability is that Irving tells the reader in many cases what’s going to happen before it actually happens. Once the reader gets there, though, they are still waiting to see how it all plays out. Irving continues to engage the reader in spite of revealing the situation previously. I think a big part of why this works belongs to Irving’s ability to develop a large number of characters at the same time. While the reader may know what’s going to happen ahead of time, they don’t know how each character is going to react. Here’s Irving’s take on this phenomenon from the story, itself:

The way you remember or dream about your loved ones – the ones who are gone – you can’t stop their endings from jumping ahead of the rest of their stories. You don’t get to choose the chronology of what you dream or the order of events in which you remember someone. In your mind – in your dreams, in your memories – sometimes the story begins with the epilogue.

Juan Diego’s dreams about his makeshift family have some wonderfully funny episodes, as well as touching and tragic ones. Juan Diego’s disillusionment with the Catholic Church provides for some very irreverent comedy but at the same time Irving portrays characters that are devoutly Catholic with more sympathy than one might expect.

I don’t know if the other Irving novels I’ve attempted to read would seem different now but I do know, for me, this was the right time for this great story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wendell Berry: That Distant Land (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 24)

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For several days after the onset of his decline, my grandfather’s mind seemed to leave him to go wandering, lost, in some foreign place. It was a dream he was in, we thought, that he could not escape. He was looking for the way home, and he could not find anyone who knew how to get there.

In a world where death by violence seems the norm, I found it interesting (I don’t feel like I could use the word “refreshing”) this week to read a story about death as a deserved rest from the weariness of a long life. I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 24 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project and it brought me to Kentucky author Wendell Berry’s short story “That Distant Land” from his collection of the same name. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Andy Catlett tells the story of the months and weeks leading up to his grandfather’s death. Berry doesn’t sugarcoat or sentimentalize this but at the same time he is able to mix a sweetness and a sadness together to tell a small, quiet tale very well.

As his family and friends work the farm thinking of Andy’s grandfather lying in bed and not with them, Berry includes just enough detail of the work to allow the reader to understand how tiring and rewarding the work is –  and that his grandfather did this for most of his long life:

But “illness,” now that I have said it, seems the wrong word. It was not like other illnesses that I had seen – it was quieter and more peacable.  It was, it would be truer to say, a great weariness that had come upon him, like the lesser weariness that comes with the day’s end – a weariness that had been earned, and was therefore accepted.

Even though a side character occasionally sings the lines of an old church hymn that contains the story’s title, I can’t call this story religious. I might consider it spiritual but it isn’t preachy or teachy. It simply shows death as a part of a family’s life.

Herbert Warren Wind: The Master’s Touch (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 23)

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It’s Week 23 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project and I’ve selected another Diamond which corresponds to stories about baseball and the Seven of Diamonds meant I read Herbert Warren Wind’s short story “The Master’s Touch”. After this story, I only have three more Diamonds left and we’re not even at the halfway point for the year. Who would have thought those Deal Me In fates were such baseball fans?

My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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The premise of “The Master’s Touch” is relatively funny. A surly old general manager goes head-to-head with an up and coming Hollywood bombshell over a minor league prospect. But aside from the premise, there really isn’t much going on here. It’s pleasant and enjoyable and that’s about it. Paul D. Staudohar, the editor of Baseball’s Best Short Stories in which this story is included, calls it a baseball “yarn” which I think is a good description.

I can’t say the writing is great. If I had to pick something interesting for a quotation, it would be this tongue lashing by Priscilla, the bombshell, to Shepherd, the surly old general manager:

Priscilla measured Shepherd coolly. “Get this through that great brain of yours, Grandpa,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about you and your precious baseball. If I want to marry that outfielder of yours or whatever he is, I’m going to, and there’s nothing you or anybody else can do about it. Do I make myself clear?”

Ha! She called him “Grandpa!”

I did find one point of interest in this story. According to Staudohar’s introduction, Herbert Warren Wind was known for his non-fiction writing about tennis and golf. I find it thought-provoking that for fiction he selected baseball. Someday I’m going to have to put a little more concrete into my theory that baseball makes for better fiction than most sports. For right now, it will have to stay at a theory that’s fuzzy but appears to be true.

 

 

“The Moons of Jupiter” – The Alice Munro Story of the Month: June

He had wires taped to his chest. A small screen hung over his head. On the screen a bright jagged line was continually being written. The writing was accompanied by a nervous electronic beeping. The behavior of his heart was on display. I tried to ignore it. It seemed to me that paying such close attention – in fact, dramatizing what ought to be a most secret activity – was asking for trouble. Anything exposed that way was apt to flare up and go crazy.

Three generations wrapped up in one short story – that’s a good clue that this is the June edition of “The Alice Munro Story of the Month” here at Mirror With Clouds and the story this month is Munro’s “The Moons of Jupiter”. I’ve said it numerous times before and I will probably say it again: Alice Munro puts into a short story what most authors would have to include in a novel. This story is also included in the collection Carried Away: A Selection of Stories which I borrowed from my public library.

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“The Moons of Jupiter” centers around an unnamed female narrator who lives in Canada and is a successful author (that part sounds kind of familiar). She is visiting her father in a Toronto hospital while dealing with strained relationships with her two adult daughters. The relationship with her father isn’t perfect, either.

This story has many of the same themes I’ve seen in Munro’s other stories I’ve read this year. Even in a big city among family members, the narrator experiences isolation; however, this isolation among community seems to be at least partially self-chosen. Given that the narrator is an author, or an artist in the general sense of the term, I’m curious as to what part that plays in her determination to be by herself. That aspect isn’t necessarily explored in detail but I couldn’t help thinking about it as I read the story.

One of the more touching aspects of “The Moons of Jupiter” appears as the narrator makes her way to a Natural History museum by herself and spends time in the planetarium. When she returns to the hospital, she and her father see if they can name all of Jupiter’s moons and from where the names came.

It’s amazing how a little thing like the cosmos can bring a family together.