Books postsThursday September 26, 2013
The First Sentence of Every Short Story in 'American Short Stories, 4th Ed.'
In 1982, in one of the first college English courses I took, we were given, or, OK, made to buy, a book called “American Short Stories, 4th ed.,” edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. It was eye-opening. It made an impression. I kept reading the stories even after the class was over. It made me think, “This is what I want to do.”
I didn't know that this—the centrality of literature to the culture—was already over.
I still have the book and I picked it up again recently. For some reason, maybe the editor in me, I began to check out the first sentences of each story. I noticed patterns, the way they changed with the times: now boats, now trains, now cars. Here's a description of nature setting the stage and the mood. Now we're in the South, now we're in New York, now we're a consumerist society buying Camel cigarettes. Characters used to be from Italy, then it was simply a place to visit. We're stiff New Englanders, we're wide-eyed Midwesterners, we're defeated Southerners. We're black, we're Jewish, we're the last of the great WASPs. Metafiction rears its ugly head before we return, perhaps self-consciously, to colloquialism.
I was going to divide these stories by their various categories but decided to just lay them out as I read them—chronologically. Enjoy. In some ways it's the history of America:
- “Whoever had made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains.” -- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819)
- “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)
- “A young man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy, to pursue his studies at the University of Padua.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini's Daughter” (1844)
- “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)
- “True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)
- “A steamboat on the Mississippi, frequently, in making her regular trips, carries beween places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at 'all intermediate landings,' the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes.” -- Thomas Bangs Thorpe, “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1841)
- “I am a rather elderly man.” -- Herman Melville, “Bartleby” (1853)
- “In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me frm the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and i hereunto append the result.” -- Mark Twain, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
- “As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in the moral atmosphere since the preceding night.” -- Bret Harte, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869)
- “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst.” -- William Dean Howells, “Editha” (1905)
- “The fighting has been hard and continuous; that was attested by all the senses.” -- Ambrose Bierce, “The Coup de Grace” (1889)
- “'Our feeling is, you know, that Becky should go.'” -- Henry James, “Europe” (1899)
- “When the porter's wife, who used to answer the house-bell, announced, 'A gentleman and a lady, sir,' I had, as I often had in those days—the wish being father to the thought—an immediate vision of sitters.” -- Henry James, “The Real Thing” (1892)
- “The leaves were so still that even Bibi thought it was going to rain.” -- Kate Chopin, “The Storm” (1898)
- “It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.” --Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “A New England Nun” (1891)
- “When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.” -- Charles Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison” (1899)
- “The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of 'vets' became.” -- Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private” (1892)
- “The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898)
- “None of them knew the color of the sky.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” (1897)
- “To Carson Chalmers, in his apartment near the square, Phillips brought the evening mail.” -- O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night” (1908, approx.)
- “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glores of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” -- Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever” (1934)
- “It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours.” -- Willa Cather, “Paul's Case” (1906)
- “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived.” -- Sherwood Anderson, “Death in the Woods (1926)
- ”'I'll tell you what I'm going to do with you, Mr. Bartlett,' said the great man.“ -- Ring Lardner, ”The Love Nest.“
- ”The grandfather, dead more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.“ -- Katherine Anne Porter, ”The Grave.“
- ”Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway.“ -- James Thurber, ”The Catbird Seat“ (1942)
- ”'And where's Mr. Campbell?' Charlies asked.“ -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, ”Babylon Revisited (1930)
- “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.” -- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” (1930)
- “Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike,” past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one“ -- William Faulkner, ”was“
- “It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” -- Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933)
- “About fiften miles below Monterery, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean.” -- John Steinbeck, “Flight“ (1938)
- “She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails.” — Langston Hughes, “Thank You, Ma’am.”
- “Solomon carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when he married her.” -- Eudora Welty, “Livvie.”
- “Verna bent over the old-fashioned bath tub—the kind with legs, and the white enamel worn thin in places—to turn the faucet and start the hot water running.” -- Cyrus Colter, “A Man in the House.”
- “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” -- John Cheever, “The Swimmer.”
- “Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort.” -- Irwin Shaw, “The Girls in the Their Summer Dresses.”
- “Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University.” -- Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel.”
- “Whenever someone misunderstood Aunt Munsie’s question, she didn’t bother to clarify it.” -- Peter Taylor, “What You Hear from ‘em?”
- “Some boys are very tough.” -- Grace Paley, “Samuel.”
- “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.” -- Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People” (1955)
- “Without discarding what he’d already written he began his story afresh in a somewhat different manner.” — John Barth, “Life-Story” (1968)
- “Edward was explaining to Carl about margins.” – Donald Barthelme, “Margins” (1964)
- “right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says ‘how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?’ but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he hegs het on some new lunatic notion and he says ...” etc. – Robert Coover, “The Brother“ (1969)
- “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” – John Updike, “A&P” (1961)
- “Go’n be coming in a few minutes.” – Ernest J. Gaines, “The Sky is Gray“ (1963)
- “‘You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,’ Itzie said.” – Philip Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959)
- “Her name was Connie.” – Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966)
- “She was afraid to look at herself just yet.” – Toni Cade Bambara, “A Girl’s Story” (1977)
Any favorites? To me, as first sentences go, you don't get much better than Bret Harte's from 1869.
Book Review: '11/22/63' by Stephen King
Stephen King’s “11/22/63” is really four Stephen King stories in one. It’s:
- a horror story about a crazy ex-husband who murders his family in a horrible small town in Maine.
- a love story about a 1960s teacher and librarian who deal with small-town mores and another crazy ex-husband.
- a story of a lucky gambler who invokes the wrath of the mob.
- It’s also the main story: A teacher from 2011 goes back in time to Sept. 1958 to stop 1), above, unexpectedly gets involved in 2) and 3), and, most importantly, tries to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy five years later. He’s going to try to right a great American wrong.
That’s why this thing is 800-plus pages. It’s heading toward a day we know too well but takes its time getting there. It gives us other stories, other books, first.
King is a great storyteller, and he can do the creepy vibe better than almost anybody, but even he can’t make Lee Harvey Oswald interesting. That’s where I got bogged down: When our hero, Jake, who takes the name George Amberson in the past, spies on Lee and Marina in their ramshackle Texas apartment. That’s when I began to lose interest. I began to flip pages.
Similarly after 3), when gangsters beat up George and leave him for dead. By then it’s September 1963, just two and a half months to go, but he barely survives the attack. He loses much of his memory. Will he get it back? Will he remember what he’s supposed to do? Of course he will. But not for a while yet. So more page flipping.
Sorry, Stephen. I know the past is obdurate—it doesn’t want to change (I love that bit, by the way)—so I know everything will get in the way of Jake/George trying to change it. But that’s why we’re here. We want to see what happens. We want to see if he stops the JFK assassination, and, if so, what happens afterwards.
Here’s a relevant quote from Gore Vidal’s review of William Manchester’s “Death of a President” way back in 1967:
The narrative is compelling even though one knows in advance everything that is going to happen. Breakfast in Fort Worth. Flight to Dallas. Governor Connally. The roses. The sun. The friendly crowds. The Governor's wife: “Well, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President.” And then one hopes that for once the story will be different—the car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the handsome head is shattered.
Here, for once, the story is different and the handsome head isn’t shattered. Here, in fact, King gets to vent against the little pissant who altered our history:
The presidential limo had taken off, driving toward the Triple Underpass at breakneck speed, the two couples inside ducking and holding onto each other. But the security car had pulled up on the far side of Elm Street near Dealey Plaza. The cops on the motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the street, and at least four dozen people were acting as spotters, pointing up at the sixth-floor window, where a skinny man in a blue shirt was clearly visible.
I heard a patter of thumps, a sound like hailstones striking mud. Those were the bullets that missed the window and hit the bricks above or on either side. Many didn’t miss. I saw Lee’s shirt billow out as if a wind had started to blow inside it—a red one that tore holes in the fabric: one above the right nipple, one at the sternum, a third where his navel would be. A fourth tore his neck open. He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man in the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.
A bullet spanged one of the overhead lights, shattered the bulb, and set it to swaying. Then a bullet tore off the top of the would-be assassin’s head, just as one of Lee’s had torn off the top of Kennedy’s head in the world I’d come from ...
King has written about political assassinations before, hasn’t he? “Dead Zone” from the mid-1970s anyway. There, his main character doesn’t come from the future but he can see the future. There, he’s the assassin of a man who will end the world if he becomes president. Here, he’s the killer of an assassin ... and winds up, well, ending the world.
That’s the other disappointing part of the novel. You want to see what happens with Kennedy unharmed. You want to see how our history, meaning my entire lifetime, is changed. But King stacks the decks against that future by having the cosmos essentially object to its changed course. Nov. 22 1963: JFK is almost assassinated but saved by two schoolteachers; Yay! Nov. 24, 1963? Massive earthquake in California. Seven thousand people die. Whoops.
And it gets worse. When George returns to 2011 it’s a sci-fi dystopia: roaming noseless hoodlums and China Syndrome radiation and regular earthquakes everywhere. Scientists predict the world, the universe, will break apart by 2080 and that will be the end of everything.
I went to the site once. In late spring 2004, the year George W. Bush beat John Kerry for the presidency, I visited Dealey Plaza. It was quiet that day. Not many people walking about. No one was ever walking about much when I was in downtown Dallas. It felt like a ghost town. But I believe the schoolbook depository is still there. What is it about Texas and schoolbooks anyway? Back then they altered our history. Today they keep trying to do that.
King obviously has it in for Dallas. Without apology. From the afterword:
On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs. Johnson were middle-class housewives. ...
This is an afterword, not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film.
“11/22/63” isn’t a bad book but it doesn’t mean much. It's the wound we keep probing to no final resolution, no final effect. Plus I never really liked George, or Jake, King's main character. I kept thinking: Can someone travel into the past and not be condescending or superior? Knowing everything that’s going to happen? That’s how George comes off. The past may be obdurate but it’s also easy. The future is malleable and that’s why it’s hard.
King probing wounds to no final effect.
Five Books I Bought at Powell’s This Weekend
We didn't have much time at Powell's this weekend so I dashed to the BASEBALL section, then FILM/TV, and grabbed the following:
- The House that Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub, and the '23 season
- A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts, about You Know Who.
- Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn, who buys a minor league team in the early 1980s.
- Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler, which is recommended by its subtitle.
- Bernard Shaw on Cinema edited and with an introduction by Bernard F. Dukore, which sounds fascinating.
I also asked at the information desk about George W.S. Trow but they only had “Within the Context of No Context.” Then I searched under “Capote” and “Roth” and then checked out with a cashier who had a lot of tats, some beautiful. I asked her if she'd seen “Elysium.” I told her that in the year 2154, according to that movie, tats would still be popular and cool. I meant it as a kind of joke but she took it as a given. She was young.
Will used bookstores survive the digital age? I had this discussion with Patricia, and our friends Richard and Mirra, on the way out of Portland. At the least, I thought, you'd be able to get out-of-print books at a used bookstore. But then I thought, “Will any books be out of print in the digital age?”
But you'll be able to browse, I thought, and find things you didn't know existed. Like the Bernard Shaw book above, which I didn't know existed until I saw it.
Or could that be an old construct already? Today, kids might think, “No, you just go to the site and it tells you what you want. That's how it works.”
How was your weekend?
Eclectic but not really.
Recommended: Joe Muto's 'Atheist in a FOXhole'
Over the last week I've included a good half-dozen quotes from Joe Muto and his book, “An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media," which I recommend to anyone interested not only in the inner workings of FOX News but the inner workings of a cable news network.
Much of the book focuses on how things work regardless of ideology. There's also an example, just in time, on how to get a job. It's not bad advice. Basically: 1) Don't care too much about getting it; 2) Be witty. The second part is the hard part, but the first ... well, it's astonishing how often that happens. (See this Christopher Reeve quote.) The thing we fear the most meets us halfway while the thing we want the most ain't budging.
As for FOX-News? Much of what we see is what we get. Bill O'Reilly is a bully, Sarah Palin is unprepared, Glenn Beck is truly, truly paranoid. But there are surprises. Apparently, off camera, Ann Coulter is a nice person. Go figure.
Muto also does a good job of parsing the famous conservative faces. These homophobes are hardly homogenous. O'Reilly may be conservative but he's not an ideologue in the way of Sean Hannity or Roger Ailes. Ratings trump politics for O'Reilly. Money trumps politics for Rupert Murdoch. For Ailes and Hannity, politics trump all.
It's worth a read. It's also a breeze. Muto is funny and a good writer.
“Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at the moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn't written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstore to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.”
-- Joseph Mitchell, “Joe Gould's Secret.”
Joseph Mitchell, author of “Joe Gould's Secret”
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