Another Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the Fifth Anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, I’m posting my top ten short stories of 2016 with some of my favorite quotations underneath the title (and then my own comments in red):

10.) Brooklyns Lose – William Heuman

He didn’t put Kluszewski on, neither,” this guy says grinning. “Klu hit it an’ kept goin’.”

This guy jokes, yet. This is a time for jokes when you have a ball game sewed up eight-to-seven in the ninth, and you lose it with a home-run ball.

I look out the window, and the guy says, “So tomorrow’s another day.”

I don’t even look at him. That kind of guy I don’t look at.

I enjoyed the baseball stories I read this year, and while there may have been other stories with more literary merit in this category, I just couldn’t help finding this one my favorite of the bunch – mostly for its fantastic use of Brooklyn dialect.

 

 

9.) Old Red – Caroline Gordon

Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him, of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore….But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.

Caroline Gordon and her recurring character Aleck Maury was one of the more pleasant discoveries I made this year.

 

 

8.) Double Birthday – Willa Cather

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

Willa Cather puts another great spin on the early Twentieth Century – a time period that continues to fascinate me.

 

 

7.) Homeland – Barbara Kingsolver

My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird Clan. Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that General Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from their beds and removing them westward. Those few who escaped his notice moved like wildcat families through the Carolina mountains…

Known (to me) for her novel The Poisonwood Bible, this was the first of Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver’s work that I’ve read. Another story is included in Deal Me In2017.

 

 

6.) The Life You Save May Be Your Own – Flannery O’Connor

Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.

Technically, I didn’t read this story this year. I read it a couple of years ago; however, Jay selected it for a great guest post. I couldn’t let a technicality like that keep me from including a Flannery O’Connor story in my top ten list.

 

5.) Christmas Gift – Robert Penn Warren

The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

A great author who happens to be from Kentucky brings tobacco and cigarette smoking to new literary heights.

 

 

4.) The Turkey Season – Alice Munro

There was the Turkey Barn, on the edge of a white field, with a row of big pine trees behind it, and always, no matter how cold and still it was, these trees were lifting their branches and sighing and straining. It seems unlikely that on my way to the Turkey Barn, for an hour of gutting turkeys, I should have experienced such a sense of promise and at the same time of perfect, impenetrable mystery in the universe, but I did.

This is the only story that wasn’t included in my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. I read an Alice Munro story each month this year and “The Turkey Season” (I read it for April) jumped out as a favorite early on. An older female protagonist looks back at a time when she was younger. While this concept appears to be a staple of Munro’s stories, this story has a slightly more positive tone than others.

 

 

3.) A Father’s Story – Andre Dubus

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

I had not heard of Andre Dubus prior to putting this story on my list for 2016, but the raw spirituality made it a favorite.

 

 

2.) The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

“Are we ever going to meet the father?” one student wanted to know. “I mean, she yearns for him and he gets compared to Christ, but we never see him directly. We’re, like, told how to feel about him. If he doesn’t ever show up, I’m going to feel cheated.”

Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was not going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.

I rediscovered Richard Russo with this story. The structure is both unique and perfect. I want to read more of his short stories in 2017.

 

 

1.) The Diary of Adam and Eve – Mark Twain

Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

I admit that there is very little separating my top 4 stories, but I was so surprised at Mark Twain’s ability to combine satire and sentiment in this story that it’s remained my favorite since I read it back in February.

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Willa Cather: Double Birthday (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 26)

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Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times – there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen.

With a beginning paragraph like that, I was counting on a fantastic short story and Willa Cather’s 1928 “Double Birthday” didn’t disappoint. Albert Engelhardt and his Uncle Albert remain with those “a little out of tune with the times” as Cather puts it. As a result of this, they don’t have the money that they once did. The story is set in motion when the two Alberts invite Judge Hammersley to their birthday party for themselves. They both have the same birthday as the title suggests. Judge Hammersley is included in that other group of people that have kept up with the times and made a fortune. Not unexpectedly, he looks at his former friends with disdain.

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As I’ve stated before, I thoroughly enjoy those post World War I authors that put the world’s disillusionment at the time into their writing. “Double Birthday” is just such an example. The Judge’s daughter, Marjorie, remembering her times with the Alberts when she was young, recognizes the person she has become as she has grown older. One who has similar attitudes as her father.

To me, Marjorie’s understanding of both her family and the Alberts gives this story one of the most beautiful accounts of redemption I’ve read in a while when she decides to attend the very small birthday party – and ultimately rekindle the friendship. Eloquently, she sums up the changes in the story’s present world as well as the changes between the two families:

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

I think “Double Birthday” will be a contender for my favorite story of the year. It is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it this week when I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 26 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.

Willa Cather: Paul’s Case

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 6

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Willa Cather

Smokey Robinson once sang “…a taste of honey’s worse than none at all”.  Based on her short story “Paul’s Case”, I would bet Willa Cather would have agreed – although, she would probably say a taste of “money” is worse than none at all.  I read this story for Week  6 of Deal Me In 2015.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I had several of Cather’s stories on my Deal Me In 2013 list.  While I enjoyed some of them, others left me a little flat.  Her stories that are set in Nebraska or the Southwest were beautiful and intriguing to me.  In spite of my infatuation with New York City, her stories involving artists in the Big Apple at the turn of the twentieth century just didn’t grab hold of me.

In the case of “Paul’s Case”, though, Cather does something different with New York City.  Paul, a teenager, lives in Pittsburgh and is somewhat of a delinquent at school.  He loves serving as an usher at Carnegie Hall so that he can rub elbows with the rich and famous – both the patrons and the performers.  His awe of the rich lifestyle contrasts with his contempt for his lower income neighborhood and school.

Cather simultaneously casts a small spark of sympathy for Paul’s situation (or “case” as the title suggests) and a repulsion for Paul’s attitude and character.  By less than noble means, Paul manages to run away to New York City and live the high life – for a little while.  As with many teenagers, Paul doesn’t realize that there is such a thing as a future and that his means will eventually run out:

It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him.  His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could.

Since I’m on an F. Scott Fitzgerald kick, I’ll bring up the fact that Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read Onindicates that Fitzgerald “adored” Willa Cather.  Corrigan even goes on to say that some of the characters in The Great Gatsby were inspired by characters in Cather’s stories (Corrigan bases this on letters Fitzgerald wrote to Cather).  Paul in “Paul’s Case” has some definite Jay Gatsby attributes; however, I would guess that Gatsby ultimately gets more reader sympathy than Paul does.

Classics Club: Favorite Literary Period

The monthly meme question at The Classics Club for March happens to be the question I submitted so I thought I would take a stab at answering it:

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

It’s not difficult for me to pick my favorite literary period.  In coming up with a list of my favorite books, by and large, they fall into the category of “Early Twentieth Century”.  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London always come to mind when determining favorites, as do J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck.  Recently, I’ve discovered Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – while Cather could be included in favorites, the jury is still out with Wharton.   And I can’t forget Margaret Mitchell and her one great novel.

I don’t know who decides which years “Early Twentieth Century” encompasses but I would ask to be allowed to include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor in this period, as well as James Baldwin, whom I just read for the first time last week.  These authors all published something in the 1940’s and/or 1950’s which I will still include as “Early” even though several of them continued publishing into the “Later Twentieth Century” and in some cases into the “Twenty First Century”.

Why is this time period my favorite?  That’s the more difficult part of the question to answer.  In some respect, it’s simply that these were the authors I read when I first discovered literature during the summer before 10th grade.  They were the first authors I read when I discovered that there was something more to reading than just an exciting plot – that there was something about the words chosen and the way they were put together.  But one could learn this with any literary time period.

I think another reason would be that from my historical perspective, the “Early Twentieth Century” is on the edge of the old and the new.  It’s far enough in the past to be intriguing but yet close enough to the present to see direct connections and influences to the world in which I live.

Just curious, do you have a favorite literary period?

Edith Wharton’s “The House of the Dead Hand”

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It’s Week #7 and both of my Edith Wharton stories are off my DMI 2014 list.  This second one, “The House of the Dead Hand”, in spite of the creepy title, wasn’t a ghost story.  I guess if I want to read her ghost stories, I’ll have to do a little more research than just grabbing a couple of titles from a table of contents.

“The House of the Dead Hand” reminded me of some of Willa Cather’s art stories that I read for my DMI 2013 project; however, I would probably take Cather’s stories over this one.  A privately-owned Leonardo DaVinci painting takes center stage in a story that I just couldn’t get into.  Sybilla, the young girl who owns the painting, lives in the title house so named because of a marble hand over the front door.  One might say that an art critic reviewing the painting gets caught between Sybilla and her suitor who loves her but can’t marry her because she doesn’t have enough money.  She could have enough money if she sold the painting; however, Sybilla’s father won’t let her sell the painting.  By the time I got to the end of the story, I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

Every once in a while, some of Wharton’s descriptions warranted some notice, such as her description of the house itself:

As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.

But overall, even some interesting writing here and there couldn’t get me to recommend this story.  Of the three Wharton stories I’ve read – “The Bolted Door”, “All Souls’ “, and this one, I would say “The Bolted Door” is the best one.  I haven’t completely written off Edith Wharton.  Some day, I will probably read one of her novels – some day.

Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

The Bookkeeper’s Wife by Willa Cather

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When it comes to stories about men falling madly in love with women who need money to keep them happy and running around in the right circles – money that the men typically don’t have but they do everything they can to get it including perhaps breaking the law, F. Scott Fitzgerald takes the top prize.  However, Willa Cather’s short story “The Bookkeeper’s Wife” gets an A for effort.

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Percy Bixby is the bookkeeper whose wife is mentioned in the title.  His wife, Stella Brown, has tastes that require more than Percy can accumulate.  His boss notices that Percy never takes a vacation from his bookkeeping which leads to a confession.  The main problem I had with the story is that there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation as to why Percy would have any interest in Stella in the first place.  Certainly, men have fallen for shallow women over and over again throughout literature and history; however, in good stories there is at least a reason for their infatuation – it may be a bad reason, but there’s still a reason.

At the end of the story, Stella makes one statement that gives her an inkling of depth and the possibility that she might be a shrewd observer of human nature.  She compares Percy to Charles Greengay, the apparent challenger to Percy for Stella’s affection:

“No, you ‘re a spender or you ‘re not. Greengay has been broke three times, fired, down and out, black-listed. But he ‘s always come back, and he always will. You will never be fired, but you ‘ll always be poor.”

It’s not a pleasant observation for Percy, but a shrewd one on Stella’s part, nonetheless.

Since it’s the next to the last week of my 2013 Deal Me In Short Story project, I don’t have to wonder which story I’ll read next week.  It will be “The Lees of Happiness” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  We’ll see if he tops “The Bookkeeper’s Wife”.