Laurie Colwin: Another Marvelous Thing (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 2)

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Then, with William tight in Freddie’s arm, the three of them walked down the street just like everyone else.

Laurie Colwin’s “Another Marvelous Thing” tells the story of Freddie, an expectant first-time mom who finds herself in a New York City hospital a little earlier than normal due to high blood pressure.

Colwin sets up a contrast between Freddie’s hospital day and the busy New York City day she sees from her window. This contrast emphasizes the isolation Freddie feels even though the doctors and nurses and her husband, Grey, continue buzzing in and out of her room checking her and her baby’s vital signs. It emphasizes the way Freddie feels different from the rest of the world.

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(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

What I found intriguing about the story is the way Colwin makes all of Freddie’s fears and worries so palpable. She makes Freddie’s fears and worries mine. While reading the story, I couldn’t help wondering whether Freddie and the baby would make it even though the doctors repeatedly reassured her. I couldn’t help wondering whether Grey was going to do something stupid. Would it all turn out OK?

I’m perhaps giving away too much but the story’s title phrase gives a clue as to how things turn out – even though I didn’t see this phrase in the story. I even went back and looked a second time. I don’t think I missed it.

All in all, it’s a pleasant enough story. I’d recommend it.

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I read “Another Marvelous Thing” when I selected the Seven of Diamonds for Week 2 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

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A Classics Club Rewind

Back in March of 2014, The Classics Club used a question I submitted for their monthly meme and last month they used it again as a Classics Club Rewind:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

Here is my original post regarding this question but I thought I would try to add something to it. My favorite literary period is still early Twentieth Century. This year I read the book The Fellowship about The Inklings, a group of Oxford authors which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing in the early Twentieth Century, they were confronted with the post-World War I disillusionment that much of the world was facing. The authors of The Fellowship come to the conclusion that Lewis and Tolkien and the others commited the “heresy of the happy ending”. So much of their fiction contains good ultimately triumphing over evil.

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On the other hand, the writers on the US side of the Atlantic like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were redefining style and providing social commentary that still stands up today. These authors were not quite as keen on the happy ending. I can’t say I have a preference over a happy ending or an unhappy ending. If the story works, it works. In early Twentieth Century novels, the unhappy endings are as cathartic as the happy endings are hopeful.

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While I’m on this topic, a new book about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises came out in 2016 called Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume. It’s on my list to read at the beginning of 2017, but I think I’ll reread The Sun Also Rises first.

Speaking of the early Twentieth Century, I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. Even thought it wasn’t written in the early Twentieth Century, it’s set during the Harlem Renessiance of the 1920’s. I’m about half way through and I highly recommend it.

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Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”

Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim – though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true, that this one was called Jim.

I consider Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” short at three and a half pages but it doesn’t really strike me as a story. It’s more like an imaginitive essay.

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(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

It is satire. Twain satirizes the fact that the Sunday-school books of his day always had bad little boys drown, get struck by lightening or get some other well-deserved punishment. Of course, Twain points out that in real life bad little boys grow up to be successful businessmen or congressmen.

The story really doesn’t have a plot but is more a list of all the things the protagonist Jim does and how the consequences don’t play out like the Sunday-school books say they should.

And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is a Mark Twain reader that “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” is funny, too.

 

 

 

 

John Cheever: The Five-Forty-Eight (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 1)

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John Cheever has slowly made his way into my circle of authors that I admire. “The Five-Forty-Eight” is only the third story of his that I’ve read. The others are “The Country Husband” and “The National Pastime”. If it wasn’t for writing so well, I might consider his stories tedious. They are full of detail – not just physical detail but extra side characters that with a lesser author would seem out of place. “The Five-Forty-Eight” allows me to include Cheever in that type of author like Alice Munro that can fit into a short story what most authors would have to include in a novel.

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(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

I read this story when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for the very first week of Deal Me In 2017. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Blake has an extramarital tryst with his new secretary and then fires her. Welcome to the fabulous 50’s! Of course, I’m wrong to imply that the 1950’s somehow cornered the market on chauvinism and this story is not a “that’s just the way it is” story anymore than the television series Mad Men was. It was difficult not to think of Mad Men as I read “The Five-Forty-Eight”. The comparison only becomes greater half way through when the reader realizes that Blake is a last name as Cheever reveals that Blake’s wife is Louise Blake. I find this minor detail fascinating and wonder what purpose Cheever may have had for choosing “Blake” for his protagonist’s name.

As the story proceeds, it becomes one of the best revenge stories I’ve read. Guess who says these chilling quotations?

“Even if I did have to kill you, they wouldn’t be able to do anything to me except put me back in the hospital, so you see I’m not afraid. But let’s sit quietly for a little while longer. I have to be calm.”

“OhI’ve been planning this for weeks. It’s all I’ve had to think about. I won’t harm you if you’ll let me talk. I’ve been thinking about devils. I mean if there are devils in the world, if there are people in the world who represent evil, is it our duty to exterminate them?”

And on a less spine-tingling note, I couldn’t help think about public transportation. The 5:48 in the title is a train out of New York City – a non-express train. While I’ve never lived in a city where public transportation might be considered the norm, I have utilized it. There is nothing better to a reader and book lover (or at least not to this one) than to spend a commute reading while someone else does the driving.

What have you read by John Cheever? And what’s your experience been with public transportation and reading?

A Year With Mark Twain: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only just a short stump like a bannanner, and—”

However, lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave.

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I’ve decided to revamp my Annual Featured Author feature (redundant, I know). For the last two years, I’ve read a short story each month by the same author – in 2015 it was Ray Bradbury and in 2016 it was Alice Munro. I’ve never thought the name of the feature sounded right, so I’ve decided to change it to A Year With… and in 2017, it’s going to be A Year With Mark Twain. My ultimate goal is to read the rest of his short stories in 2017.

So I’m starting this off with one of his more famous stories “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. This is roughly the third time I’ve read this story with the first being somewhere around junior high.

What I didn’t remember from previous readings is that the story of the frog is just one of a number of stories that Simon Wheeler is telling about his acquaintance, persistent gambler Jim Smiley. He’s telling these stories to the unnamed narrator – perhaps a fictional version of Twain, himself – who isn’t really in the mood to hear all of these tall tales.

I also didn’t remember that in Wheeler’s versions of these stories, the various animals for which Smiley is making his bets have names of famous people. A puppy is named Andrew Jackson while the frog from the title is named Dan’l Webster. Something about this enhances the incredibility of the stories – as does the way Twain uses a narrator listening to a narrator telling stories from another narrator. It’s not a surprise to anyone – the fictional Twain or the reader – that these stories might not be true.

Finally, the tall tales make the story funny. I’ve known parents who don’t like their children to read stories in which characters lie. While I fully respect parents teaching morals to their children and I can think of worse things for parents to do than be involved in their children’s reading, lying has been a staple of fictional comedy since – well, probably at least since 1865 when “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published.