Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain’s “The Trials of Simon Erickson”

He could not think of the turnip without emotion; he could not speak of it calmly; he could not contemplate it without exaltation; he could not eat it without shedding tears.

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For whatever reason, a turnip is a very funny vegetable. It’s not the first time that they show up in a story by Mark Twain. In “The Trials of Simon Erickson”, another story within a story, Simon Erickson attempts to help a young man in Michigan who is obsessed with turnips – specifically getting turnips to grow on a vine. The young man is so obsessed that his health starts to deteriorate.

The trials, as well as the humor, ensue when Erickson corresponds with an apparent turnip expert; however, the response he gets is in less than perfect handwriting. He interprets and misinterprets the writing to the point that he mistakes the verbage as offensive. According to Erickson, who is potentially telling this story years later, this minor misunderstanding starts wars in Italy.

While today, letter writing and handwriting seem to be a thing of the past, I’m sure Twain could get lots of humor out of text abbreviations and auto correction.

Posted in Short Stories

Jarrid Deaton: Gravity (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 13)

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When I think about it, I realize that Dad and the Mayor could have been big buddies before the Mayor’s great planet of hubris and masculinity caught my mother in its gravitational pull and jerked her out of our orbit.

Jarrid Deaton’s short story “Gravity” combines two story types that I don’t think I’ve seen together before. It’s a coming of age story as well as a revenge story – and the combination is brilliant.

Devon tells his story as well as the story of his Mom, his Dad and the Mayor of Given, Kentucky. We get Devon when he was three, six, eleven, eighteen and on into adulthood. The Mayor is there the whole time destroying his parents’ marriage and planting a larger seed of bitterness in Devon’s Dad and ultimately Devon, himself.

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This is one of those stories in which I have a tough time deciding what quotation to use. Each sentence rings with humor and sarcasm as well as ringing true. I admit the revenge aspect doesn’t play out as I thought it might but I think the title, while showing up in the quotation I used above, might actually stand for natural consequences as opposed to taking matters into one’s own hands.

I read this story when I selected the Four of Spades for Week 13 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It is included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Posted in Non Fiction

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain’s “A Trial”

Capt. Ned Blakely – that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous) – sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years.

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In reading through Mark Twain’s short stories, I knew I would eventually have to grapple with material that would be considered offensive by today’s standards and his story “The Trial” contains just such material.

But it’s difficult to say whether the overarching story in theme is offensive or just the racial slurs used.

Bill Noakes, the nemisis of Captain Ned Blakely, kills a favorite African shipmate of Blakely’s. Noakes is seen doing the killing by numerous witnesses so when Blakely goes to hang Noakes, he is taken by surprise when everyone insists on a “fair” trial.

The setup seems to move the story toward a trial where Noakes is found innocent in spite of his obvious crime. But, no, that’s not what happens. He’s found guilty and he’s hanged.

If there is humor in this story, it went over my head – or perhaps its simply not as timeless as much of Twain’s humor is. Would the ending have been a surprise to Twain’s readers in 1872? Would Twain’s 1872 readers have found something funny in this story? Or did Mark Twain just decide that some of his stories didn’t need to be funny?

 

Posted in Short Stories

Donald Barthelme: The Balloon (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 12)

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…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there – muted grays and browns for the most part, constrasting with walnut and soft yellows.

Meaning takes on a whole new meaning in Donald Barthelme’s 1966 story “The Balloon”. As a giant balloon inflates over a significant part of New York City, much discussion ensues over what it means by the narrator. Is the narrator the one responsible for the balloon? Possibly? What is the balloon? The narrator acknowledges these as logical questions, but of course there are no real answers – just descriptions of how the balloon influences New York City life – and it doesn’t influence life nearly as much as one might think.

As the quotation above implies, in many ways, this is more like a painting than a story until we get to the final paragraph. That’s where a semblance of meaning, of purpose, of plot begins – just as the story ends.

As unusual as Barthelme’s story is, it is easily in the top three stories I’ve read so far for Deal Me In 2017 and I can see it making its way to the top ten at the end of the year. I highly recommend it!

I read “The Balloon” when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 12 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 byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain’s “Tom Quartz”

Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat…

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“Tom Quartz” is another of Mark Twain’s stories that is actually a story within a story. It reminds me a little of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” because of the way the story is told in dialect and accent. The story involves a cat, dynamite and miners who only half know what they are doing.

The Looney Tunes antics that ensue are funny only because nobody (or no animal) truly gets hurt. I know that the quotation I’ve used above may imply otherwise – but the cat isn’t really harmed. I mean, he’s able to walk away.

 

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram”

I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before.

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Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram” doesn’t have an old ram in it.

It does have cannibals that are converted after eating their missionaries, a dead man rising up at his funeral to tell his mortician that he doesn’t want this coffin but would rather have another one, and a man killed at a carpet factory after which his widow weaves his remains into the piece of carpet that killed him.

But no, it doesn’t have an old ram in it.

Posted in Short Stories

Wendell Berry: A Jonquil for Mary Penn (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 11)

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On a bright, still day in the late fall, after all the leaves were down, she had stood on the highest point and had seen the six smokes of the six houses rising straight up into the wide downfalling light. She knew which smoke came from which house. It was like watching the rising up of prayers or some less acknowledged communication between Earth and HeavenShe could not say to herself how it made her feel.

At first glance, Wendell Berry’s stories may come across as quaint and old-fashioned; however, he usually moves beyond the quaint to universal before you know it.

In “A Jonquil for Mary Penn”, a story set in 1940 Kentucky, young wife Mary wakes up sick. Her ambitious husband Elton gets up, eats breakfast and is out doing the farming before the sun is up.

During her day at home, we learn about the rift between Mary and her parents for marrying below her status. We learn a lot about her community and Elton. She loves him deeply but is upset because he appeared to not realize she’s sick.

It’s a great story that is mostly setting, tone and mood. At the end of the day, she wakes up to her friend Josie embroidering a jonquil. As Elton had sent Josie to watch Mary, she realizes he knew she was sick. That makes all the difference.

This story is included in my copy of That Distant Land: The Collected Stories. I read it when I selected the Eight of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mae, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.

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There are great writers and great story-tellers and when one person can do both it’s a thing of beauty and Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy epitomizes that beauty. It’s as beautiful as the novel’s cover.

Of course, beauty doesn’t eliminate sadness and tragedy and there is plenty of that in this novel. Florens, a slave girl in 1690 Maryland is given away by her mother to pay her master’s debt. Florens, old enough to know what’s going on at the time, never forgets what her mother has done.

The plot in the present time simply consists of an older Florens traveling to see the free blacksmith with whom she is head over heels in love so that he can get the right kind of medicine for her current Mistress who appears to be on her deathbed.

But Morrison miraculously gives the reader so much depth and understanding by having the many characters involved all tell the story. While Florens gets more sections from her point of view than the others, many of the  characters who might be considered minor are brought to major light through the sections that are from their viewpoint. Not many writers could pull this off.

While reading the novel, the title hung over my head as a major question. And then, when I thought everyone had had their say, a surprising voice appears:

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae.

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

Scott McClanahan: Mary, The Cleaning Lady (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 10)

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There were good things like ice cream cones, and trying to keep houses clean, and your mother bringing you to Mary’s house wrapped in a blanket, so you could watch cartoons and dream your cartoon dreams.

When I was a child, I occasionally went to visit an elderly relative in a nursing home. While my relative would be familiar to me, I have to admit that the other patients were pretty scary. This is part of the premise of Scott McClanahan’s “Mary, the Cleaning Lady”. A young Scott gets dropped off at Mary’s house by his mother when she goes to work. Mary goes to work, also, to clean houses and brings Scott along. McClanahan manages to put all the fears and pleasures of childhood into this small story.

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Of the stories I’ve read so far in the anthology Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay, I’d say this is my favorite. I haven’t read anything else by Scott McClanahan but based on what I’ve seen on Amazon.com, he is a native of West Virginia and his work appears to have been published by small independent publishing companies. I wouldn’t mind exploring more of his work.

I read this story when I selected the Five of Spades for my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

For Week 11, I’m reading another story with a Mary in the title: Wendell Berry’s “A Jonquil for Mary Penn”.

What stories about childhood have you read? Which ones would you recommend?