The Shorties – My 2016 Short Story Awards!

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Dale at Mirror With Clouds posted his top ten stories of the year this morning, which reminded me I had planned to do another edition of my “Shorties” awards this year. So, without further ado…

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Somehow I neglected to do the “Shorties” awards last year.  But here are the 2013 and 2014 editions if you want to see the past winners.  This year, for the Third “Annual” edition, we retain George R.R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, brilliantly brought to life by actor Peter Dinklage in the HBO Series, Game of Thrones, as our spokesman, taking to heart his quotation below. “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” And… once again, as I did last year, I’ll stress that “shorties” is intended as a term of endearment not a politically incorrect disparaging remark about short people. 🙂  All the stories below may be found in the summary post for my 2016 Deal Me In Challenge.

  1. Favorite New (to me) Author:
    a) Maurice Thompson
    b) Edward Eggleston
    c) Ernie Pyle
    d) John Shivley
    e) Nora Bonner

Really a toss up here, between Pyle and Thompson, but I’m going to have to go with Maurice Thompson. Both his stories in my Deal Me In deck were among my favorites of the year!

  1. Most Memorable Female Character
    a) narrator (“Letter to the Man in Carnivorous Plants” by Lauren Ann Bolton)
    b) Aunt Gingy (“It Came from Burr County” by Marian Allen)
    c) Alice (“The Beautiful Lady” by Booth Tarkington)
    d) Eleanor Garen (“Profiles in Survival” by John Shivley)
    e) Katie Deane (“Autumn Full of Apples” by Dan Wakefield)

At the risk of heading toward an Academy Award-like sweep, I’ll go with the title character, Alice, in Booth Tarkington’s The Beautiful Lady. Such purity of heart is rare – and refreshing.  I did notice that there was a lack of memorable female characters in my Deal Me In stories this year. Of course, with a lot of non-fiction in the mix, there were fewer opportunities, but I’m going to keep a better eye out for them in 2017.

  1. Most Memorable Male Character
    a) Dan (“Autumn Full of Apples” by Dan Wakefield)
    b) Harrison Bergeron (“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut)
    c) Willie (“Mr. Blake’s Walking Stick” by Edward Eggleston)
    d) Zach (“The Legend of Potato Creek” by Maurice Thompson)
    e) Uncle Midas (“The Boyhood of Christ” by General Lew Wallace)

I’m going to go with the GENERAL Lew Wallace’s character.  His Uncle Midas was such a likable character, there is probably a likeness of him if you look up “avuncular” in the dictionary. 🙂

  1. Most Memorable writing
    a) Booth Tarkington
    b) Rocco Versaci
    c) Ernie Pyle
    d) Josh Green
    e) Michael Martone

I enjoyed all of these writers very much, but the Shortie goes to Tarkington. The clinching quotation (from The Beautiful Lady): “To fall in love must one behold a face? Yes; at thirty. At twenty, when one is something of a poet No: it is sufficient to see a grey pongee skirt! At fifty, when one is a philosopher No: it is enough to perceive a soul! I had done both; I had seen the skirt; I had perceived the soul.” Winner.

  1. Favorite Story
    a) The Pedagogue by Maurice Thompson
    b) Schliemann in Indianapolis by Michael Martone
    c) Autumn Full of Apples by Dan Wakefield
    d) A Reward of Merit by Booth Tarkington
    e) The Beautiful Lady by Booth Tarkington

So tough to decide, but since I’ve already “honored” Tarkington twice, I’m going to go with Maurice Thompson’s story, The Pedagogue – a classic Indiana “Frontier” story that sometimes reminded me of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Honorable mention to Martone, whose stories in the collection “Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List” have all been enjoyable thus far.

Well, those are some of my favorite stories, characters, and authors from this year. Which were YOURS?

 

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Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”

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This week I drew the ace of diamonds from my “stories recommended by others” suit. Tip of the cap to Megan, a longtime reader and “honored citizen” of Bibliophilopolis, who recommended this story to me when I was building my short story roster for Deal Me In 2014 late last year.

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An awful lot can happen in “just an hour” can’t it? One thing that could happen is that someone could read this story about ten or fifteen times. It’s that short. This story, published in 1894, packs quite a wallop nonetheless.

A young wife with a heart condition learns from her sister and friend that they have received news her husband was killed in an accident while traveling. She reacts in a completely understandable grief-stricken way and then retires to her bedroom to “be alone.” She sinks into an armchair in front of an open window and experiences something of an epiphany. “There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.”

It is only then that the reader learns something more about what kind of married life this woman had, one where she often felt oppressed. She begins to see a “silver lining” in the dire news she has received, thinking that no longer “…would (a) powerful will (be) bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” She begins to think of herself as “Free! Body and soul free!” which she keeps whispering to herself. What will the rest of her new life be like now? It isn’t long before the reader finds out…

If you would like to read the story for yourself, it’s available on line in many places, one of them here

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The logo for the TV show “Sixty Minutes.” (i.e, an hour 🙂 ) It was quite familiar to me when I was growing up – not because I watched the program, but because it came on after the late afternoon Sunday football games on CBS, during which we were frequently reminded that – since games usually ran late – it could “be seen in its entirety” following the conclusion of the football broadcast. Anyone else remember that?

J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man”

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“The only son of a wealthy missionary couple, the Laughing Man was kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits. When the wealthy missionary couple refused (from a religious conviction) to pay the ransom for their son, the bandits, slightly piqued, placed the little fellow’s head in a carpenter’s vise and gave the appropriate lever several turns to the right. The subject of this unique experience grew into manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose.”

Or so the title character of J.D. Salinger’s short story, The Laughing Man, is described in the first couple pages of the tale. But – surprise! – the story isn’t really about the Laughing Man. Instead, we learn that the Laughing Man is a recurring character in the stories told by a kind of “scoutmaster” to his charge of nine- and ten-year old boys. This group is called the “Comanche Club” and their leader/scoutmaster is John Gedsudski, aka “The Chief,” who is a law school student.

Though revered by the “Comanches,” the chief is not much a physical specimen himself – at least by adult standards. He takes the boys after school and some “saturdays and on most national holidays” in an old bus to various adventures or to play sports, particularly baseball. And – after the games or on camping trips – there are always continuations of his “serial” stories of the Laughing Man. At one point in the story, however, The Chief introduces the boys to his new girlfriend, Mary Hudson. The boys are dismayed, but eventually are won over by her, most likely because of her fondness for, and proficiency in baseball.

Perhaps the Chief is playing a bit out of his league with this girl, however, and as you might expect, the relationship doesn’t last. The curious thing, and I guess the ‘gimmick’ of the story, is that – as the fate of the Chief’s relationship rises and falls, so does the imagined welfare of the Laughing Man. Maybe, with the Chief becoming jaded – for possibly the first time in his life – some of that dose of reality seeps through and contaminates the imaginary world of the Laughing Man – with dire consequences.

I liked the story. The fantastical character of the Laughing Man was genius, and the world he inhabited was like the real world, but not exactly. The boys are told he lives “in a tiny cottage with an underground gymnasium and shooting range on the stormy coast of Tibet”(!) and that he makes frequent trips across the “Paris-Chinese border” (what?!). His diet? He “subsisted exclusively on rice and eagles’ blood.” (Loved that one!). The boys’ burgeoning imaginations are well fed by these stories, and we hear of them “sizing up elevator operators as potential arch-enemies,” and fancying that they are “the only legitimate living descendant” of the Laughing Man.

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I own this story in my copy of Salinger’s famous collection, “Nine Stories.” This was the sixth one of the nine that I’ve read. The Laughing Man was originally published in 1949 in The New Yorker (cover pictured below). I’ve also posted about one other of the nine, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” as part of my 2012 short story reading project. I didn’t start with any Salinger stories on this year’s roster, but Saturday morning I drew the two of clubs and this year “deuces are wild” so I raided Dale’s “Deal Me In” roster at Mirror with Clouds and picked this story. Dale has also posted about The Laughing Man. You can read his thoughts here.

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Have you read this story? How did you like it? Are you a Salinger fan? (Coincidently, I’m reading the classic The Catcher in the Rye right now as well – for the first time – for shame!)  Below: J.D. Salinger on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961.

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The Crowd by Ray Bradbury

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“How swiftly a crowd comes… like the iris of an eye closing in out of nowhere.”

Note: this post contains spoilers…

Mr. Spallner, this story’s protagonist, is involved in an automobile accident. Though hurt and dazed, his injuries are not life-threatening. He is conscious enough to notice the details of his surroundings – particularly that, in a location that was deserted moments before, a crowd had gathered “out of nowhere” to surround him. He notices too that the tires of his now upside-down car are still spinning “with senseless centrifuge.”

Someone in the crowd says “Is he dead?” And another one answers, “No, he’s not dead.” And another, “He won’t die. He’s not going to die.” It sounded to this reader like the crowd was disappointed. Spallner has his suspicions too, although he realizes he may have been dazed after the accident, there is something strange about the crowd.

crowd

He discusses his fears and observations with several people, first his attending doctor when he awakens two days later in the hospital, then a cab driver, then his friend, Morgan. All of them challenge his idea that there was something sinister in the crowd, yet all of them have also witnessed the phenomenon of how quickly a crowd appears at accidents. The cabbie sums it up as “Same way with a fire or explosion. Nobody around. Boom. Lotsa people around. I dunno.” It is primarily the speed at which the crowd gathers that is eating at Spallner. He tells his doctor that they were there in thirty seconds. The doctor suggests it “was probably more or like three or four minutes” since Spallner’s senses were disordered by the accident.

Spallner knows better, though. Why? Because he remembers that, when HIS crowd was there, the tires on his car were STILL SPINNING. They wouldn’t have been spinning for three or four minutes. Friction would have slowed them down much faster than that. Sometimes the (natural) laws of physics conspire to reveal or confirm the supernatural, eh? An interesting idea…

Riding in a cab, he witnesses another accident and is certain he sees some of the faces in that accident’s crowd that he saw at his own accident. When visiting his friend Morgan in an office building, their talk is interrupted by the sound of a car crash on the street below. Again, Spallner thinks, the crowd includes some of the same faces. Not all, of course, but some.

He does some detailed research in archived newspaper clippings and photos of accidents over the years and sees the same people over and over. They are always the same age. They are always in the same clothing. They are always in the crowd. He shows his findings to his friend Morgan and says he is going to take them to the police.

“Do you think they’ll believe you?”
“Oh, they’ll believe me all right!”

Spallner begins driving very carefully to the police station. Not carefully enough, however, as he is involved in another “accident”….

How did I learn about this story? Well, back in March a local library branch had a day honoring Ray Bradbury, with a couple talks or presentations by Jonathan Eller, the director of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” located here in town at IUPUI (that’s “Indiana University -Purdue University Indianapolis”). Mr. Eller, who knew Bradbury personally and is also his biographer, shared many photos and stories about the author. One memorable photo to me was of his family’s small house in Los Angeles (maybe “cottage” is the better word). It was located right next to one of the local power company’s substations, and one photo showed the window of the room where Bradbury did his writing, which looked out at this structure. One can easily imagine the author’s imagination humming right along with the audible drone from that station…

<below: Ray Bradbury memorabilia on display at the library>

bradbury memorabilia

Eller shared many anecdotes about Bradbury stories. The one that piqued my interest, though, was of how Bradbury – who never learned to drive – witnessed a horrible accident in 1934 Los Angeles while walking on what was moments before a seemingly abandoned street. A woman victim of the accident even died while Bradbury was tending to her. Obviously such a traumatic event would leave quite an impression on anyone, and for Bradbury his amazement at how quickly a crowd gathered led to this story.

<below: the first volume of Eller’s Biography of Ray Bradbury>

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Of course this is just one of many many great short stories by this prolific writer. Which ones have you read that are your favorites? (I’m still working my way through the collection “The Illustrated Man” and have a couple of his stories on my list for my 2013 edition of my annual short story reading project.)

(below outside the Irvington Branch of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library system. I used to live right across the street, just out of the picture to the right…)

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<we even got to listen to Bradbury’s own voice – it was a “super fascinating” day!>

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(Below, the power substation located next to Bradbury’s house in Los Angeles. As Jonathan Eller wrote me when forwarding this picture: “Imagine seeing this at night, with the sub station machinery lights glowing through the tinted windows. Creative energy as tangible metaphor.”)

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A Passion in the Desert

This weekend I read the wonderful short story, “A Passion in the Desert,” by Honore de Balzac. A local “Great Books” discussion group was tackling this work in January, so I met up with them at the Nora library on Indianapolis’s north side last night. It was a nice group of six (counting me)! evenly split between men and women (something of a rarity in book groups). The fact that we were able to have a nearly 90-minute discussion on a 14-page short story is either a testament to the richness of the story, or the quality of the discussion – or both!

For those who don’t know, the story deals with a French soldier who was part of Napoleon’s Egypt campaign around the turn on the 19th century. The soldier is captured by the Arabs (presumably the Mamelukes?) but escapes their clutches only to find himself stranded at a small oasis in the desert, which he learns also happens to be the home of a female leopard. Providentially for the soldier, he first meets the leopard just after she has fed, thus reducing the immediate danger to himself. The two begin a wary friendship, with the soldier initially just biding his time for a chance to kill the leopard or make his escape. Over time, however, the friendship grows (almost) into a kind of love. But, in the end, it “ended as all great passions do – by a misunderstanding. For some reason, one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

I won’t reveal how the story ends. You can read it for yourself for free online at:

http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/pitdbalz.html

Interesting also is that the story of the soldier and the leopard is framed as kind of a story within a story, told by a man (who had met the soldier as an old man and heard the story from him first hand) to his lady friend after a visit to a menagerie, where the woman marvels at the tameness of the wild animals. This framework meant very little to me while reading, but garnered much focus at our discussion, with one member astutely pointing out that the wonderful story of the desert had become diluted to be used just “to impress his date.”

The story also includes some powerful natural descriptions of the desert, and in a wonderful exchange at the end the soldier says, “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.” When asked to further explain that statement, he replies, “It is God without mankind.”

Definitely worth a read.

(below: Honore de Balzac)

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