F. Scott Fitzgerald: Crazy Sunday (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 44)

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The singing reached Joel vaguely; he felt happy and friendly toward all the people gathered there, people of bravery and industry, superior to a bourgeoisie that outdid them in ignorance and loose living, risen to a position of the highest prominence in a nation that for a decade had wanted only to be entertained. He liked them – he loved them. Great waves of good feeling flowed through him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Crazy Sunday” has been anthologized frequently and found its way, via John Updike, into The Best Short Stories of the Century. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors and while I understand why this story could be considered great, it’s not my favorite of his stories.

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Joel, a Hollywood writer sometime in the 1930’s, gets invited to cocktail parties on Sundays by the wife of his boss, Miles. There’s an odd sort of triangle here in that Joel is in love with Miles’ wife, Miles’ wife loves Miles, and Miles is having an affair with another woman. The intriguing part is that none of this is a secret from any of them.

On the one hand, Fitzgerald’s writing-brilliant, as it almost always is – reveals all this information with a detailed restraint. He’s always been one to write about a good party or write about a bad party in a good way. The stuffiness of the Sunday cocktail parties at Miles’ house contrasts well with the intimate details of these three characters’ desires.

Then, out of the blue (literally) tragedy strikes. This is the part of the plot that makes me less than enthusiastic about the story as a whole. The beautiful restraint with which Fitzgerald writes gets blown away with something overly dramatic. Perhaps, I need to read the story again to get more of a clue as to why this story is great in the opinions of many.

Have you read this story? I would love to find out what you thought of it!

I read this story when I drew the Queen of Spades for Week 44 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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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has been on my radar for a long time. In spite of it being on numerous “best” lists and outside of it having an African American female protagonist, I admit I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know about it’s history, it being banned and even out of publication before being published again in 1978 (per Amazon.com).

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As I read it, I slowly realized that Hurston’s elegant narration combined with the  “dialect” of the characters’ conversations provided a beautiful friction to the entire story. At the beginning, the difference seems jarring; however, by the end, both styles morph into each other and provide a masterful way in which to tell the story of Janie Crawford.

In a nutshell, Janie works her way through three husbands to find the power she has within herself. All kinds of interesting characters weave themselves in and out of the story and tell stories themselves. While reading the novel, it was easy to think there was no definitive structure to the narrative. But when all was said and done, it took me by surprise that the novel was more or less a five act play. Acts 1 and 5 stood as bookends of Janie returning to Eatonville, Florida after marrying her third husband. Acts 2, 3 and 4 each centered around Janie’s husbands.

The theme of racism is buried in the story though the theme of sexism is much more prevelant. I love the way Hurston simply tells Janie’s story with real people and real situations and lets the effects of these evils play out without preaching or teaching.

In the form of a hurricane, Hurston makes the specific universal. The fact that this “act of God” wreaks havoc on everybody, male or female, black or white – nobody is special, nobody is better – pulls any reader into the human condition:

It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.

 

Bobbie Ann Mason: Residents and Transients (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 43)

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We are in the canning kitchen, an airy back porch which I use for the cats. It has a sink where I wash their bowls and cabinets where I keep their food. The canning kitchen was my mother’s pride. There, she processed her green beans twenty minutes in a pressure canner, and her tomato juice fifteen minutes in a water bath. Now my mother lives in a mobile home. In her letters she tells me all the prices of the foods she buys.

As the title implies, Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Residents and Transients” is another Kentucky story about what is home and what is not home. Week 42’s story “Barred Owl” by Chris Offutt deals with the same concepts.

Mary is living in her parent’s farmhouse somewhere in western Kentucky while her husband, Stephen, starts a job in Louisville and looks for a place for them to live. While he is gone, she “takes a lover”, as she puts it, in the form of the local dentist, Larry.

Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

Mary is from Kentucky but had lived away from the state for a while before returning. In a side note, it’s interesting that Bobbie Ann Mason and fellow Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver both moved away and returned to their home state. Mary’s parents, due to health reasons, have already moved to Florida. They left behind eight cats of whom Mary becomes fond.

It’s not difficult to see the two men in her life as representing the two terms in the story’s title. Stephen, the transient and Larry, the resident. Mary isn’t just torn between the two men, she’s torn between what she considers her home and what she doesn’t consider home:

[Stephen] works for one of those companies that require frequent transfers, and I agreed to that arrangement in the beginning, but now I do not want to go to Louisville. I do not want to go anywhere.

This story is also included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I selected it when I drew the Jack of Hearts for Week 43 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.

Chris Offutt: Barred Owl (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 42)

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Seven years ago I got divorced and left Kentucky, heading west. I made the Mississippi River in one day, and it just floored me how big it was. I watched the water until sundown. It didn’t seem like a river, but a giant brown muscle instead. Two days later, my car threw a rod and I settled in Greeley, Colorado. Nobody in my family has lived this far off our home hill.

Chris Offutt’s short story “Barred Owl” uses the skinning of a roadkill owl to shed light on two characters and what they consider to be home and that sense of belonging or lack thereof that go with it.

Outside of a divorce, we don’t know exactly why the narrator left his Kentucky home to ramdomly settle in Colorado but it doesn’t seem like he feels welcomed in this new town even after seven years. A drinking problem coupled with the fact that his “community” is a local bar could have something to do with it.

Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

We also don’t know why Tarvis appears to have followed him out to Colorado at some point. Both knew each other from Kentucky, but it doesn’t seem that they are best of friends.

The roadkill owl that Tarvis brings to the narrator to skin is key to Tarvis’ leaving, though. His inability to shoot animals possibly made him an outcast back in Kentucky.

Chris Offutt’s collection of short stories Kentucky Straight pops up frequently in my neck of the woods whenever bookstores or libraries present selections by Kentucky authors. “Barred Owl” is not included in that collection. It’s included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts 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.

 

Watership Down

Rabbits do not name the stars, but nevertheless Hazel was familiar with the sight of Capella rising; and he watched it now until it stood gold and bright in the dark northeastern horizon to the right of the farm.

Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down is about rabbits. It’s about rabbits the way War and Peace is about Russia.

In spite of character names like Hazel, Strawberry, Dandelion, Bigwig and Blackberry, this novel does not suffer from a case of cuteness. In fact, it’s been on numerous banned book lists because of the violence in a story that appears to be aimed at children.

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In reading Adams’ introduction, he indicates that, while his intention was to have rabbits that would talk and think, he purposely didn’t make them do anything physically that actual wild rabbits couldn’t do. I have nothing against stories with anthropomorphic animals, but I found Adams careful attention to the natural details of rabbit life intriguing and they fit the purposes of his story remarkably well.

Adams uses nature as a major theme but not just as in the “natural” world although that plays an important role, too. The individual nature of the rabbits comes out loud and clear usually when they need to go against their nature. In the end, the rabbits discuss the evil General Woundwort as not being natural which results in his viciousness. At the same time, the rabbits on their journey to a new home find they need to react differently than they might be inclined to react. For example, when the rabbits are in a group as danger approaches, their instinct is to scatter. Hazel, the leader of the the group, has to come up with a way to keep them all together.

Adams emphasizes the rabbit’s bravery as they must move away from their natural instinct of fear in order to set up a new warren (home) on Watership Down. This concept of home becomes beautifully realized as Adams uses imagery of female rabbits with their young nestled well into the earth. This idea of safety, warmth, belonging all go hand in hand with Adam’s adventurous tale.

Throughout the travels, during times of rest, it was common for the rabbits to ask for a story from Dandelion and Dandelion usually gave them another tale of El-ahrairah, who might be considered a folk hero or perhaps even a religious figure to the rabbits. Of these stories, my favorite involved the Black Rabbit of Inle:

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off.”

The novel asks some interesting questions. Does setting up a community of freedom involve conquering fear or living with it? Does a totalitarian government begin with fear and end with attempts to extinquish it at all costs?

This story reminded me of a line from one of Bruce Springsteen’s more recent songs – “Fear can take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”. The gods and devils in Watership Down turn out an awesome story.

 

 

 

 

Recommended Stories: “The Night The Bed Fell” by James Thurber

I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth, in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better recitation (unless, as some of my friends have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is, admittedly, an incredible tale. Still, it did take place.

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James Thurber’s hilarious short story “The Night The Bed Fell” comes recommended by Hamlette the Dame over at The Edge of the Precipice. She recommended this to me a little while ago after I had read another story by James Thurber. And I have to say that out of the handful of Thurber stories I’ve read, this is my favorite. In addition, this is probably one of the best examples of “written” physical comedy and just a plain funny story.

While laughing out loud when I was reading it, I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it would be to write a story that is based only on people doing things that are funny. I think filming physical comedy (like say The Dick Van Dyke Show) would be much easier than writing it down.

But writing it down is what Thurber does and he does it brilliantly. Like so many physical comedy sketches, it starts with a relatively innocent decision of the narrator’s father to sleep in the attic. From there, a domino effect ensues, continuing all the way to the end. I’ll mention again the laughing out loud as it happens. If this were “real life”, I think I would be listening to this story over and over again. And laughing every time.

 

Graham Greene: Cheap in August (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 41)

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The trouble was that, after three weeks of calypsos in the humid evenings, the rum punches (for which she could no longer disguise from herself a repugnance), the warm Martinis, the interminable red snappers, and tomatoes with everythng, there had been no affair, not even the hint of one. She had discovered with disappointment the essential morality of a holiday resort in the cheap season: there were no opportunities for infidelity, only for writing postcards…

Kudos to Graham Greene for using the title phrase of his short story “Cheap in August” over and over again – without it becoming annoying or cliche. Everytime I read the phrase I thought “This is actually working!”

Mary Watson, a British woman living in New England vacations in Jamaica while her American husband travels to England on business. All of this European and American contrast is delightfully confusing (or confusingly delightful – I don’t know). While there could be a sort of cultural, political commentary buried way underneath the bamboo bars and warm Martinis, I’m not convinced that’s the real point of the story.

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Mary travels to Jamaica by herself for the purpose of having what she calls an “adventure” or what most might call an affair. Gravely disappointed that a middle-aged woman like herself isn’t seen as attractive to the mostly younger men hanging out at her resort, she ultimately meets a much older and significantly less attractive man.

With his title phrase, Greene captures the air of rejection felt by Mary. He also captures Mary’s regret that neither she nor her husband have the amount of money and material success she thought they would have had by now.

“Cheap in August” is one of those stories that oozes sadness; however, the light wit with which it’s written keeps the reader from feeling the same sadness as the characters. It also makes it one of my favorite Graham Greene stories. Though  I haven’t come close to reading all of his stories, I would highly recommend this one and “A Branch of the Service”. 

I read this when I selected the King of Clubs for Week 41 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Graham Greene: Complete Short Stories. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.