A Fourth Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the fourth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds. To celebrate, I am posting my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read in 2015.  They are in order from 10 to 1.

10.) Here We Are by Dorothy Parker- A very funny story with one of my favorite quotations of the year:

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

9.) Miami-New York by Martha Gellhorn- One of Ernest Hemingway’s wives seems to have more of a sense of humor than he did.

8.) Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers – One of my favorite narrators comes in the form of a cat.

7.) The Country Husband by John Cheever – A depressing but brilliantly written story about life in the suburbs with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as the soundtrack:

Then Donald Goslin, who lived at the corner, began to play the “Moonlight Sonata”. He did this nearly every night. He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity – of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the street beneath the trees like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lonely housemaid – some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-floor room.

6.) The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – I liked this story so much I read more of Proulx’s Wyoming stories from her collection Close Range.

5.) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the story that has pushed me beyond simply an appreciation for Oates’ work. It’s by far the scariest story I read this year.

4.) In the Gloaming by Alice Elliot Dark – Tear jerker? Yes. Sentimental? No. Saddest story I read this year.

3.) God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen by Ernest Hemingway – A disturbing story with one of my favorite first lines:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

2.) A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow – The title by no means gives away how funny and irreverent this story is.

1.) A Voice in the Night by Steven Millhauser- My fascination with Steven Millhauser’s work only increased with this story and it contained one of my favorite final lines:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

 

Saul Bellow Week, Day 1 – Him With His Foot In His Mouth

Just as previously this year with Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx, after reading Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish”, I decided I wanted to explore more of Bellow’s work.  So this week will be devoted to six of his short stories.  The first one, “Him With His Foot In His Mouth”, is just as funny and just as irreverent as “A Silver Dish”.

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Here’s the incident that sparks the story:

Then, Miss Rose, you say, smiling at me, “Oh, Dr. Shawmut, in that cap you look like an archaeologist.”  Before I can stop myself, I answer, “And you look like something I just dug up.”

Thirty-five years later, Dr. Shawmut, who at the time of the incident was a young music professor at Ribier College, feels guilty for his insult and writes Miss Rose (the college librarian) an epistle of apology.  The story is sixty pages in my edition and the entire story is the letter.

The apology wanders everywhere from philosophy to art to religion to Dr. Shawmut’s mother in a nursing home to his brother’s business schemes and to the eventual reason Dr. Shawmut had to move to Canada.  Throughout, Bellow has Shawmut only half apologize.  For most of the letter, Shawmut tries to give reasons, or maybe excuses, for this thoughtlessness.

I found this story to be somewhat Woody Allen-esque in Dr. Shawmut’s neurotic ramblings and excuses for the way Dr. Shawmut turned out.  Although, I suppose Woody Allen could be Saul Bellow-ish, I’m not sure who came first.

When the insult is revealed early on in the story, I admit I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard.  Continuing on, Bellow never misses a comedic beat.  I also enjoyed the way the reader never finds out whether Miss Rose replied or accepted his apology or is even still alive.

I hope I get as many laughs from the rest of Bellow’s stories this week.

Annie Proulx Week, Day 6 – A Lonely Coast

Not being aware of the contents of the Annie Proulx stories I’ve read this week, I’ve been surprised that it wasn’t until this last story, “A Lonely Coast”, that female characters took a more prominent role.  Not surprising is the small-town Wyoming setting and Proulx perfectly captures the small-town Western bar scene (in this story it’s called “The Golden Buckle”).

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The unnamed female narrator (at least I think she is unnamed, I went back several times to try to see if Proulx ever gave her a name, if she did and I just forgot, feel free to let me know!) tells the story of her friend Josanna Skiles.  No major plot line exists. Small episodes serve as examples of the miserable life that Josanna and the rest of the women in town seem to lead.  None of the men in this story treat women with any respect and they all, men and women, lead a hopeless life.

The title comes from a seemingly minor detail about the only vacation that the narrator and her boyfriend, Riley, took to the Oregon coast.  This coast was as lonely as Wyoming except for one thing:

Up the lonely coast a stuttering blink warned ships away.  I said to Riley that was what we needed in Wyoming – lighthouses.  He said no, what we needed was a wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them.

At least from this story, I think Wyoming could use lighthouses, also.  And something about which to be hopeful.

Annie Proulx Week, Day 5 – People In Hell Just Want a Drink of Water

With “People In Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”, Annie Proulx puts her spin on the villagers vs. the monster story similar to “Beauty and the Beast” – although there really isn’t a Beauty in this story and perhaps that’s why things don’t turn out quite as well.

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The villagers take the form of Ice Dunmire and his eight sons.  They grow up ranching and become good ranchers. – to the point that ranching becomes the way of their world and they automatically assume it should be the way of everyone else’s world.  Meanwhile, in the same small Wyoming town, Ras Tinsley grows up with a different mindset:

…he threw the weight of his mind in random directions as if the practical problems of life were not to be resolved but teased as a kitten is by a broom straw.

A tragic car accident leaves Ras horribly disfigured in a Beast-like fashion.  Because he frightens the townspeople, the Dunmires take things into their own hands and the manner in which this conflict ends puts this story firmly in that pesky “disturbing” category.

The significance of the title could make a good discussion as it is not actually referenced in the story.  While I have my ideas about it, I don’t want to ruin the story for others.

Annie Proulx Week, Day 4 – Job History

Annie Proulx’s “Job History” is just what the title says it is.  Set in and around Unique, Wyoming, the story of Leeland Lee’s various jobs and job losses is somewhat unique.  The story is told almost as a series of lists with the exception of incredible paragraphs detailing Leeland’s physical appearance as a child or the same type of detail describing Leeland’s wife, Lori.

It’s easy to read this story with the mindset that Leeland and his family have incredibly bad luck as his job history is quite long and varied.  Or with the idea that the setting is simply economically depressed and this is what happens in these places. This  isn’t the first time that Proulx has equated Wyoming with bad luck.  Poor Mero in “The Half-Skinned Steer” has great luck outside of his home state only for the bad luck to return as he makes his way back.

In spite of the continuous job changes, the story also tells of a resilience that keeps going through the bad times. Leeland may not be the most pleasant of characters, but I like him because he never gives up.

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Annie Proulx Week, Day 3 – 55 Miles to the Gas Pump

At a page and a half, Annie Proulx’s story “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” is even shorter than yesterday’s story “The Blood Bay”. It also has a comedic tone, and while dark, it’s more tongue-in-cheek.  In half a paragraph, Proulx manages to muster up more suspense than some authors can in an entire novel.  For a few seconds, the reader wonders what is in the attic that Rancher Croom keeps locked from Mrs. Croom.  The answer might come as a shock to the reader but not to Mrs. Croom.

The story has nothing to do with a gas pump but everything to do with people who live isolated from other people.  As Proulx puts it at the end of the story:

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

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Annie Proulx Week, Day 2 – The Blood Bay

That night he froze to death on Powder River’s bitter west bank, that stream of famous dimensions and direction – an inch deep, a mile wide and she flows uphill from Texas.

Annie Proulx’s “The Blood Bay”, set in the 1880’s, begins with a group of cowboys stumbling across a man who has frozen to death in the Wyoming winter.  Any story that has someone freezing to death is going to remind me of Jack London; however, so far, Proulx’s writing brings to mind London in theme and style, also.  In this story, the man who dies alone is only the catalyst for a very short and darkly comic tale.

One of the cowboys takes a liking to the dead man’s boots and his grisly manner of removing them as well as his encounter with the horse that gives the story its title sets the stage for a great punchline.  Just as in some of London’s stories, the fun and games inside a warm cabin provide a stark contrast to the wicked cold outdoors.

I would recommend this story to anyone wanting a quick introduction to Proulx’s work.

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