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.

 

Joyce Carol Oates: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Deal Me In – Week 50

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“Now put your hand on your heart, honey. Feel that? That feels solid too but we know better…”

For Week 50 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project, I selected the Five of Hearts which corresponds to Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.  This is one of Oates’ earlier stories and I couldn’t help but wonder if her stories published in the 1960’s are as scary and disturbing as the stories she has published in more recent years.  The answer is “Yes”!

In spite of the scary and disturbing aspects of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, this is the most well-written Oates story that I’ve read (although I’ve only read a handful) and firmly agree with John Updike for including it in his anthology The Best American Short Stories of the Century. 

Arnold Friend is what I will call the perpetrator in this story. He’s not the protagonist. Oates perfectly develops him as a character that I was afraid to “look at” but to whom I couldn’t close my eyes. I had to keep reading. The psychological intensity involved in the conversation between Arnold Friend and the protagonist puts this story at the top of my list of scary story recommendations.

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My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

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.

David Foster Wallace: Good People

Deal Me In – Week 30

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According to Joyce Carol Oates in an introduction to this story, “Good People” is different from other stories by David Foster Wallace.  Since this is the first story I’ve read by Wallace, I can’t speak for the truth of that; however, I am now curious. I have to say that this story caught me off guard. It wasn’t anything like I expected.

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Lane and Sheri are college students who, based on their conversation, are religious – an Evangelical Protestant Christian type of religious. Though the words are never used, Sheri is pregnant and they are contemplating an abortion. Comparison to Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is inevitable. To himself, Lane doesn’t think he really loves Sheri. They meet at a picnic table by a lake where Lane comes to the conclusion that Sheri will want to keep the baby but will lie and say she wants to let him “off the hook”.

The story is told entirely through the thoughts of Lane but the puzzling and, I admit, appealing aspect of the story is that there is virtually no proselytizing or politicizing in the story’s tone or purpose. The title comes from Lane’s mother referring to Sheri as “good people”.  I’ve always found this phrase humorous – a person (singular) being good people (plural). The story’s strength is not simply showing Sheri as “good people” but in showing Lane and Sheri as real people.

Lane’s thoughts at the end don’t bring any conclusion to the situation but are curious nevertheless:

…why is he so sure he doesn’t love her?  Why is one kind of love any different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is? What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he was just afraid, if the truth was no more than this, and if what to pray for was not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates and I read it when I picked the Four of Diamonds from my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story List. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Herman Melville: A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 15

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Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2015 project started with me having to look up a word in the title of a story, Herman Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids” which I chose by drawing the Queen of Spades.  I discovered “Tartarus”, in essence, means hell – it was a lower region of Hades in Greek mythology.  And, therefore, “Paradise” can be assumed to mean heaven.  Melville uses both of these words figuratively in a story that Joyce Carol Oates (in an introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories of whom Oates is editor) suggests could make him the first American feminist.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Herman Melville

I can’t say that this story has a plot, but it has words – and Melville’s poetic and magical words are enough.  As the title suggests, it’s a contrast of two situations.  In the first section, the unnamed narrator visits London, England for business purposes.  He has a grand time among lawyers and businessmen – all of whom are bachelors:

In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library; go worship in the sculptured chapel; but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle.  Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.

The second section brings the narrator back to the United States, somewhere in New England.  He visits a paper factory to buy envelopes for his seed company.  Here, he encounters a group of women working in drudgery with no rest. Melville throws his sympathies to the ladies even if he doesn’t have a solution:

To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragging long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint.  The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.

An obvious contrast of genders exists in this story so it begs Joyce Carol Oates’ question in her introduction “Herman Melville, our first native feminist? – can it be so?” (p.1, Oxford).  Written in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s difficult to see Melville as a feminist by today’s standards; however, it’s easy to see the beginning recognition of inequality.

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The Glazers – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 6

It’s the final day for Joyce Carol Oates Week and the story I read for today is “The Glazers” – going back to her collection Dear Husband,.

This story brought the most fun to the week, at least by Joyce Carol Oates standards.  I have said before on this blog that if a reader is able to see what will happen at the end of a story but still want to get there and, once there, still enjoy it, the author has accomplished something great.  That’s what happened for me in reading “The Glazers”.

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In college, Penelope dates Glen Glazer and makes the trip to meet his family.  She meets his father and then each of his four brothers come out of the woodwork.  They vary from ages 5 to 26.  They all have different personalities and thoroughly enjoy getting to know Penelope.  They almost crave a friendship with a female.

Penelope also enjoys meeting the men until they end up getting into fist fights and yelling matches. She finally asks the question to which she gets no answer:  Where is the wife and mother?  Nobody gives her a straight answer although it’s certain that they don’t have a mother in their lives.

This is when I had a good idea of what was going on.  The mention of Glen and his father’s career choices and business ventures give a huge clue.  However, I still wanted to see what would happen and how everything played out.

I also liked this story’s straight to the point ending which I thought was better than some of Oates’ more ambiguous endings.

It’s been a fun week exploring Joyce Carol Oates’ stories.  Although, I admit that I’m glad my Deal Me In 2015 Project did not deal up this week the one Oates story on my list.  While looking forward to it, I’m content to hold off on that one for at least a little while.

Sourland – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 5

What do you do when you are reeling from the death of your husband (this is sounding familiar) and his estranged friend that you thought had been killed in his own politically motivated bombing suddenly sends you a letter asking you to come visit him in a remote part of Minnesota?

If you are Sophie in Joyce Carol Oates’ title story from her collection Sourland – you go.

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At 70 pages, this is the longest Oates story I’ve read.  It’s not long because of an intricate plot but more because of great attention to detail in the form of flashbacks to the death of Sophie’s husband along with beautiful and haunting descriptions of Minnesota’s Sourland. Kolk, the husband’s friend, gets his own descriptive attention as Oates lends her skills to the facial scar caused by the bombing.

The plot itself simply involves Sophie’s trip to visit Kolk in a lonely cabin on the wintry landscape.  Numerous situations make the reader want to scream “Don’t go in there!” or “Stay away!” but, just as in horror movies, Sophie doesn’t listen to the reader.

Sophie’s thoughts and feelings, though, about her husband’s death give the reader a little more to think about than the typical horror movie:

Still the wave of love for him flowed into her, like an electric current.  She could not bear it, how she loved this man: the connection between them, that was in danger of breaking. Suddenly it was a possibility, the connection might be broken. Such desperate love Sophie felt for her doomed husband yearning and insubstantial as a tiny flame buffeted by wind. Such desperate love, she had to hide her face from him, that he wouldn’t see, and chide her.