George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

I’ve enjoyed reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott this year but based on what I’ve read, in my humble opinion, the Nineteenth Century Female Author to beat all Nineteenth Century Female Authors is George Eliot. I felt this way after I read Silas Marner back in 2013 and immediately went out and bought The Mill on the Floss. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read it but I’m glad I finally did. I can’t wait this long to read more of Eliot’s work.

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From the beginning, Eliot’s own narration drew me into the story and I knew she wouldn’t disappoint:

Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair, and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill, as it looked one February afternoon many years ago. Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr and Mrs Tulliver were talking about, as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlour, on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

As I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about this novel since I finished it, the one thing I come up with as to why she is my favorite of the above mentioned authors is that her narrative and characters are so subtle and nuanced and yet she’s able to realistically surprise the reader by having characters respond in ways one wouldn’t have expected.

Like the heroines of the other authors, Eliot gives Maggie Tulliver an intelligence and strong will that pushes against and surprises her family and society, usually to their disappointment. Her brother Tom treats her in a less than noble manner while children but the reader (and Eliot herself, I believe) has to give a little admiration to Tom as he makes a tireless and ultimately successful endeavor to win back their lost family property and respect. The chorus of arrogant Aunts on Maggie and Tom’s mother’s side constantly chide Maggie for her nonconforming ways but eventually stand up for her when Tom feels he needs to banish her from the family.

As she develops a wonderful friendship and almost-romance with the shy and deformed Phillip Wakem, Maggie surprised me by getting caught up in the ways and words of the dashing Stephen Guest. Even Stephen Guest doesn’t fit the mold of “mean rich guy”; he reminds me more of Laurie in Little Women.

Then there is the finale that is arguably anything but subtle and nuanced. I firmly believe that many stories are worth reading even if one knows how they will end and The Mill on the Floss is one of them but I won’t reveal the ending. However, I couldn’t help feel that Eliot had given hints (subtle ones) along the way of how the story would wrap up. It was kind of like a literary de ja vu.

I’ll just say that of the three men between which Maggie’s devotion is torn, the one she ends up with is a fascinating choice.

What are your thoughts about George Eliot? Which of her novels have you read and how would you compare her to other popular Nineteenth Century Female British authors?

 

 

 

 

Damon Runyon: Baseball Hattie (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 35)

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In the more humorous baseball stories I’ve read this year, the players and managers and their friends, family and acquaintances all have a little bit of caricature about them and Damon Runyon’s story “Baseball Hattie” isn’t any different. However, as a female protagonist, Runyan shapes Hattie to be at least a little less stereotypical. She has more strength than many of the women I’ve read in these baseball stories and she doesn’t allow her professional pitcher husband, Haystack Duggeler and his buddy, Armand Fibleman, to control her life. In a brief moment of calculated anger, she actually controls the lives of these two men.

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The question I asked as I read the story and what made the story a little better than it would have been is who is this narrator telling the story? We’re not given his name and we don’t know his relationship to the characters; however, he apparently knows Hattie, Haystack, and Armand.  In the same manner many of these baseball stories are told, he narrates the way he talks: dialect, poor grammar, slang, etc.

I enjoyed his desparate attempt to be polite while describing Hattie’s former profession prior to marrying her pitcher husband:

It seems that the trouble with Hattie is she is in business up in Harlem, and this business consists of a boarding and rooming house where ladies and gentlemen board and room, and personally I never see anything out of line in the matter, but the rumor somehow gets around, as rumors will do, that in the first place, it is not a boarding and rooming house, and in the second place that the ladies and gentlemen who room and board there are by no means ladies and gentlemen, and especially ladies.

I guess I can say that there is somewhat of a cuteness to the story but it’s not at the top my list of stories I would recommend.

This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar. I read it when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 35 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.

 

A Guest Post by Jay at Bibliophilopolis: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor

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For my final Wild Card of Deal Me In 2016 (my Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here), the Two of Clubs, I am excited to have a guest post by Jay at Bibliophilopolis, the sponsor of Deal Me In.  I was fortunate enough to be involved in a reading group with Jay a few years ago and it was here that he introduced me to the wonders of the short story. Each July, the members of the group would choose a short story and we would read all of them and discuss them at our meeting. Up until that point, short stories had not been on my radar (much) but that’s all changed and its a change for the better. So without further ado, here’s Jay:

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I am honored to write a guest post for the Mirror With Clouds blog, which I have read “religiously” (heh heh – the card that fell to me was in his suit of “Catholic Stories”) since its inception years ago. By guest posting, I’m actually returning the favor for Dale, who wrote a guest post at my blog, ( https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/jack-cadys-play-like-im-sheriff-story-12-of-deal-me-in-2016/ ) for one of my own Deal Me “IN” wild cards. For me, I got the two of clubs in Dale’s 2016 iteration of the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge. I chose to write about a story by Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the most acclaimed Catholic author of short stories.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

I think I’ve written in prior blog posts of how often I am intrigued by a story’s title. I.e., What does it mean? or How was it chosen? Often I am unable to “figure it out,” but perhaps those instances are my favorites – those that are open to a reader’s interpretation. Was I able to figure out this story’s title? Let’s see…

“Everyone has his price,” as the old saying goes, but what would be your price to completely betray those who showed you kindness in a time of need? For Mr. Shiftlet, the dark protagonist(?) of this story, it’s $17.50 and a beat up old car that he’s got running again for an old lady and her simple-minded daughter, Lucynell.

The great Leo Tolstoy is credited with having said “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” I guess this story would fall in to the latter, although the stranger doesn’t so much “come to town” as just show up on the old lady’s doorstep looking for work. Once the old lady discovers Mr. Shiftlet is of some use with repairs around the house, she quickly begins thinking in terms of him as “husband material” for her daughter. For example, when talking of Lucynell to Mr. Shiftlet, the old woman insists “She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels.” This is classic “reverse psychology” you see – it turns out the old woman is “ravenous for a son-in-law.” For his next trick, Shiftlet even sets to work on getting the old derelict car of hers running again, succeeding against all odds.  This episode of the story served as a reminder to me that O’Connor was a true master of the simile:

“Late in the afternoon, terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house… With a volley of blasts it (the car) emerged from the shed, moving in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver’s seat, sitting very erect. He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.”

Another great simile was in the description of the daughter: “Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.”

Mr. Shiftlet is quickly “on” to the old woman’s plans for him, though, and plays it to his advantage, asking for money to paint the car and for an almost ‘dowry-like’ cash advance from the old lady before he’ll agree to marry Lucynell. Getting the paint job on the vehicle is the first step, and when the old lady finally agrees, O’Connor relates that “In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.”  As a reader, you’re not really sure what’s going to happen on the upcoming honeymoon, and those who aren’t experienced readers of O’Connor are likely quite taken by surprise by the scene that later takes place in a roadside diner…

This was a great – if unsettling – short story.  I don’t believe it’s available in the public domain, but any decent library or bookstore should have a copy of O’Connor’s short stories waiting to be checked out or purchased. I liked this one even more because it was full of the things I’ve come to expect and appreciate in Flannery OConnor’s stories.

But what about the title’s meaning? Well, once Shiftlet gets the resurrected car on the road he occasionally sees signs along the road that warn: “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.” I think Mr. Shiftlet’s philosophy on what it is like to be a man – as he explains to the old woman earlier in the story – may have something to do with it: “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit. The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always…” His earlier likening a man’s spirit to an automobile adds a little more meaning to the ‘generic’ road signs he’s seeing, I suspect. But that’s just my guess on why she titled the story this way. If you have a different idea I’d love to hear about it.

Do you remember any short stories you have liked but were unable to understand why they were titled the way they were? Or are there any for which you’ve come up with a particularly good interpretation that you’re proud of? Have you read any of the great stories of Flannery O’Connor?  What did YOU think of them?

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Drive Carefully sign photo found at https://mysteriesandmanners.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/sacramentality-and-the-short-story/.

T. C. Boyle: The Devil and Irv Cherniske (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 34)

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I enjoy stories where characters make a deal with the devil – like Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads or a Georgia boy entering a fiddle playing contest. Both of those have a musical theme, too. Of course, that might be an additional reason why I like those two stories.

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

When I included T. C. Boyle’s short story “The Devil and Irv Cherniske” on my Deal Me In 2016 list, I was looking forward to reading another version. I also happen to enjoy an author who can take a tried and true formula and make it their own. And Boyle pretty much does that with this story.

I’m probably stereotyping a little bit, but the name Irv Cherniske brought up images of someone rather quirky and given what little I knew about Boyle’s writing, I figured “quirky” would be right up his alley. However, the character of Irv in the story isn’t quite what I imagined. Irv actually already has a lot of the devil in him prior to his negotiations with the Evil One.

One of the little twists Boyle adds to his story involves a side deal with Irv’s wife. You’ll have to read the story to determine for whom or whether this side deal ends well.  Another twist has Irv, in his later years, rethinking this bargain. So he ends up seeing Reverend Jimmy, who, being from “Staten Island [still] spoke in the Alabama hog farmer’s dialect peculiar to his tribe.”

So ulitmately, Irv sells his soul for money and then uses his money to try to buy it back.

Again, read the story to find out which side finally gets Irv.

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp.  I read it when I selected the Jack of Clubs for Week 34 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.

 

 

T. C. Boyle: Filthy With Things (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 33)

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Julian and Marsha have an issue with organization and accumulating things in T. C. Boyle’s short story “Filthy With Things” which is included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  I read it this week when I selected the Ten of Spades for Week 33 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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Boyle achieves significant hilarity early on in the story by frequently including the description of some oddball antique or quirky collectible throughout the plot:

If they were to drain the poolwhere would Marsha keep her museum-quality collection of Early American whaling implements, buoys and ship’s furniture, not to mention the two hundred twelve antique oarlocks currently mounted on the pool fence?

Susan Certaine (great name!) enters the picture offering her paid services with Nazi-like intensity. She uses Imelda Marcos’ shoe problem as a reference and Julian hires her for “help”.

As the story continues, Susan Certaine and her squad cease to be Nazi-like and become actually totalitarian in their control over Julian and his wife. This still makes for an excellent story; however, it’s not as funny as it began. Of course, I’ve always been one to think a little bit of clutter makes a house more of a home.

This is the second story by T. C. Boyle that I’ve read (the other one was “The Hector Quesadilla Story” for Week 1 of DMI 2016) and while I’ve enjoyed them very much, I’m still waiting for the one that will completely blow me away. I feel like it’s out there somewhere. Next week, I will be reading another Boyle story “The Devil and Irv Cherniske”. Maybe that will be the one.

How about you? Any T. C. Boyle suggestions?

J. D. Salinger: Slight Rebellion Off Madison (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 32)

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While riding in Fifth Avenue buses, girls who knew Holden often thought they saw him walking past Saks’ or Altman’s or Lord & Taylor’s, but it was usually somebody else.

For fans of J. D. Salinger, does his short story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”, which would later become his novel The Catcher In The Rye, come off as a little disappointing?

For me, not necessarily.

Is it everything one could hope for as a Salinger fan?

No, not really.

According to Wikipedia, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was published in The New Yorker on December 21, 1946 and eventually morphed into chapter 17 of The Catcher in the Rye.

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For those who have already read Salinger’s more famous novel, not much new pops up in this story. Holden Caulfield’s middle name is Morrisey. I didn’t know that or at least don’t remember that being mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye.

In Holden’s rant against New York, I did find one of his complaints amusing. He doesn’t like having to always take an elevator down before going out. He wants to just go out.

I find the story interesting more from an historical standpoint than anything else. For first time Salinger readers, I would recommend the entire novel as opposed to this story.

I discovered “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in a new collection I own: Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I chose Salinger’s story when I drew a wild card, the Two of Spades, 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.

“Carried Away” – The Alice Munro Story of the Month: August

The town was full of the smell of horses. As evening came on, big blinkered horses with feathered hooves pulled the sleighs across the bridge, past the hotel, beyond the street lights, down the dark side of the roads. Somewhere out in the country they would lose the sound of each other’s bells.

Alice Munro’s short story “Carried Away” provides an interesting question. Is it a ghost story? An unexplained incongruity in the story makes the reader wonder if ghosts are the best explanation. If not ghosts, then perhaps a dream? Thinking about this was fascinating.

It also contains one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve read in a while.

At the same time, “Carried Away” isn’t simply ghosts, dreams or gore. Like the other Alice Munro stories I’ve read, the female protagonist seems to exist in a self-imposed isolation. She lives with what I would call a mild state of despair. We don’t know all of the details but a failed relationship inspires Louisa to move to her current home town to be a librarian; however, it seems like this despair is the price she pays for being who she is and for standing on her own two feet. It also seems a price she is willing to pay.

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“Carried Away” has a more winding plot than the other Munro stories I’ve read. It starts with Louisa receiving letters from a soldier in Europe during World War I. He knows who she is but, being new to the town, she is unable to place his face. This inability to know him goes on for longer than one might possibly think; however, I found this aspect of the story powerful. The winding part of the plot involves what happens to both characters for the next several decades.

If you like ghost stories, read “Carried Away” and see what you think. If you like gruesome, read this and I don’t think you will be disappointed.

This story is included in the collection Carried Away: A Selection of Stories that  I borrowed from my public library.