“Omelas, Bright-Towered by the Sea”

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (and other short stories I’ve read recently)

In catching up (and I AM caught up now – hallelujah!) with my 2012 short story reading project, I’m reading stories faster than I am able to blog about them, so this post is a bit of a catch-up with just brief comments on the last six I’ve read.

Maybe the best of the group was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, a highly acclaimed science fiction writer.** The story tells the tale of the city of Omelas, where all the citizens enjoy a seemingly unadulterated happiness. Well, ALMOST all, I should say. The city has a dark secret to its happiness that the reader only discovers midway through the story. Largely allegorical, the tale asks the question of how much we would be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Apparently, most of the citizens are willing to accept the sacrifices their city has deemed necessary. Some are not, however and they are the titular “ones who walk away…” This story won the Hugo Award for The Best Science Fiction Short Story of 1974. Wikipedia has a list of nominees and winners – take a look and see how many you’re familiar with.

Another good one was “Cumberland Breakdown” by Joyce Carol Oates. This was another from her collection “I Am No One You Know,” from which I’ve read another story, “The Mutants,” as part of this year’s reading project. In this story, two children, Melora (13) and her older brother Tyrell (16), are coping with the loss of their father, a volunteer fireman who lost his life fighting a fire at the house of some “welfare people,” the Barndollars. Tyrell especially resents that the act of saving these poor, “probably drunk and smoking in bed,” people has taken away their father. With Melora tagging along, Tyrell contemplates revenge and stalks the Barndollars, meeting them in the final pages of the story, which did not end as I expected.

I also read a sad story by Katherine Mansfield titled “Marriage a la Mode.” Published in 1921, it deals with a man fighting a seemingly hopeless battle to prevent losing his wife to her new “Bohemian” friends and lifestyle. As a last ditch tactic, he writes her a traditional “love letter” which she reads to her friends(!) who enjoy a good laugh over it. She feels ashamed and resolves to write him back in kind, but her resolution is tested by the pull of her new friends.

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My recent reading also included two stories by James Joyce, both from “The Dubliners.” One, “The Boarding House,” didn’t do much for me, being the “standard fare” of the daughter of a boarding house owner being compromised by one of the boarders and the natural attendant consequences. The other was better. Titled “A Little Cloud,” it deals with a reunion of two friends who had grown up together but had, at the time of the story, been separated for quite awhile. One had gone off and “made a name for himself” while the other has settled into a traditional life. The traditional life friend feels some jealousy and envy of the one who went off to seek his fortune. This was kind of an analysis of the concept of “the grass is always greener” that I thought was very well done. I enjoyed neither of these stories as much as I did “The Dead.”

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I also read my second Henry James story of the year. Though I enjoyed it less than the other one (“The Middle Years”), “The Tree of Knowledge” was an interesting look at the concept of self-delusion and how we may support each other in our self-delusions. In a nutshell, it’s about a couple, the man being a professional – though certainly not brilliant – artist, who have a son who also wants to follow an artistic career path. Not too remarkable a situation until you throw in the old family friend, who “has always loved” the artists wife, and has carefully protected her from the knowledge of “the truth” about her husband’s lack of real talent. He finds he wants to protect the son from this truth too, leading to a cerebral story that may be a warning about the futility of getting tangled up in the lives of others.

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So, have any of the above stories – or authors – struck your fancy at some point in your reading life?  What did you think of them? Do you have any recommendations for  my future short story reading?

**Those who are not fans of the sci-fi genre may have heard her name in the 2007 movie – based upon the 2004 book – “The Jane Austen Book Club.” In the movie, ***SPOILER ALERT*** the only male (Grigg) in the book club is a sci-fi fan and recommends reading Le Guin to fellow member, Jocelyn, who’s a bit of a literary snob and thus above reading sci-fi even though Grigg explains that his recommendations are not the standard ray gun & robot sci-fi. She’s also blind to the fact that Grigg is clearly interested in her, but eventually reads them and is swept away, driving immediately over to his house and only realizing after she’s there that it’s five o’clock in the morning,so she waits in her car and falls asleep. He sees her when he’s leaving to go to work the next morning, and taps on her window… “I read these books!” she gushes, and they head inside and tear off each others clothes. So cliche. That happens to me all the time <cough cough> when I recommend books to women who look like Maria Bello and they actually read and like them. (below: the cast of “The Jane Austen Book Club” – that’s Jocelyn & Grigg on the right)

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8 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    July 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    I seem to recall reading LeGuin’s Earthsea books a long time ago. These other stories all look very good! I’m getting ready to read two Ray Bradbury short stories, “The Picasso Summer” and “All Summer in a Day”, a “summer” theme, I guess. I’m currently re-reading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. At some point, I’ll probably read more short stories by him, “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” is one that I’ve always wanted to read.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 24, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Hi Dale,

      I’ve heard of “Earthsea” but never read it. Didnt the sci-fi channel have a mini-series version a few years ago?

      I must get some more Bradbury in soon! I have one other story of his in my 2012 reading project but that won’t be enough. 🙂 And Hemingway. Why haven’t I read my way through his collection of stories yet? I have a copy. I’m just an incredible slacker… 🙂

      -Jay

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  2. July 23, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    A Little Cloud was, perhaps, my favorite from Dubliners. I felt like he actually developed that story all the way (it intrigued my imagination at least, where the others didn’t so much.)

    Funny tie-in regarding the Jane Austen Book Club! The only LeGuin I’ve read is her children’s “Catwings” series (which, by the way, is delightful.)

    I’m putting the Oates collection on my wishlist…I know you haven’t been too exuberant about her stories as of yet, but I love her writing even though I don’t necessarily like her storylines so I have hope. 🙂

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 24, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Hi Melody, I think you can find me on goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4346493-jay-carr

      I just read another from the Oates collection this morning, with the odd title of “upholstery.” Like many of her stories, it fell among the the type we’ve talked about before. Kind of disturbing storyline, but amazing writing.

      I hadn’t heard of the Catwings series. I do have one other book by Le Guin that’s been on the bookshelf for years, but for some reason I’ve never read it.

      I always feel like I have to put a little (lot?) more effort into reading Joyce (or Henry James, for that matter), but if I can muster the concentration to make the effort I am generally rewarded for it.

      -Jay

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  3. hkatz said,

    July 26, 2012 at 11:27 am

    What a great array of recommendations and mini-reviews.

    On reading Le Guin’s story a while ago I wondered whether there was anyone willing to stage a rebellion (rather than either accept the sacrifice or walk away).

    That Henry James story looks good too. I also enjoyed The Middle Years and wrote about it on my blog; it was poignant how the author observed that he was passing from life just as his talents had really reached their full flowering.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      That’s a good question! I admit I never considered the “third option” of actually fighting to change things in Omelas.

      On a side note, in some of my post reading “research” I found a website that sells “I Walked Away from Omelas” t-shirts ( http://www.zazzle.com/the_one_who_walked_away_from_omelas_shirt-235320143621293304 ). I have to get one!

      And, with all the buzz lately about a certain fast-food chicken seller, I bet an “I Walked Away from Chik-Fil-A” t-shirt would sell too. But would most of those who purchased it “get it,” I wonder?

      Like

  4. Nancy said,

    July 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    You made a remarkable post of short stories I have yet to read. As I’ve said, I keep hearing about Ursula Le Guin but I haven’t read any of her works yet. I have Joyce Carol Oates’ The Goddess and Other Stories and read a couple of her works. Many say this particular short story collection is not her best. As I don’t have any other bases for comparison, I can’t say I agree with them. From what I’ve read so far though, I’ve observed that her plots are common and yet her remarkable writing skill simply shows through.

    Thanks for joining Short Stories on Wednesdays. 🙂

    Like

  5. July 5, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I have read “Tree of Knowledge;” it’s a very good one. The ending took my completely by surprise.

    Like


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