Today has so far been a very good reading day, though mostly of the short story variety. I won't go into detail about each story I have read--a few were sort of 'meh', several have been very good and two are by a friend and fellow book blogger who is hoping to get them published. Of the last two I will only say that they were both very good, very polished and I hope they do indeed get published and you can read them, too. One was a mystery and the other a ghost story, both so fitting for my summer reading and I am especially fond of ghost stories. Both are rich in atmosphere and good storytelling. I was reading one on the bus home and had just passed a moment of tension, a little cliffhanger of sorts and had to carefully continue reading while walking . . . (no worries, I only had another page to go to get to the end and thankfully the sidewalk was level).
How's that for a teaser?
But I am going to tell you about two New Yorker stories instead. One from the most recent issue, and one published in the first half of the twentieth century. I really love The New Yorker, and I particularly love the style of writers from the period covered in the book I am currently reading from, Short Stories from The New Yorker--a collection published in 1940 by Simon and Schuster. All the stories were originally published in the magazine between February 1925 to September 1940. Unfortunately there is not much of a foreword and no notes on the contributors--but many are recognizable like John Cheever, Kay Boyle, Christopher Isherwood, William Maxwell, Dorothy Parker and last week's Sally Benson. There is something about those years--the way women dressed, the way people socialized, there was an elegance to the world that you just no longer come across. I think the same is true in literature.
I was going to peruse the book and dip into a few of the 68 stories to see which one I wanted to start with, but the first story in the book caught my attention and I kept reading. Irwin Shaw? Do you know him? Have you read him? He was a prolific writer--novelist, screenwriter, short story writer--and I found this interesting:
"Though Shaw's work received widespread critical acclaim, the success of his commercial fiction ultimately diminished his literary reputation."
Okay, I admit it comes from Shaw's Wikipedia entry and there is no notation where the statement came from, so you have to take the information with a grain of salt, but somehow I wouldn't be surprised. I had heard of Irwin Shaw--of Rich Man, Poor Man fame. Yes, the dreaded "popular fiction" is associated with his name. But if you look, the book has garnered almost all four or five star ratings by readers. he obviously was doing something right, and if his story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is anything to go by, he was very good at what he did.
There is such a beautiful simplicity to this story, which is a mere six pages long, but what he manages to convey in so few pages is impressive.
"'When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls on parade in the city. I don't know whether it's something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I'm at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theatres, the famous beauties who've taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses'."
This is what Michael explains to his wife Frances as they walk down Fifth Avenue on a warm sunny almost spring-like February afternoon. She talks, he looks at the women walking by, and Frances calls him on it. And he tries to explain, but he can't seem to help himself, or doesn't want to. In the questions she asks, in the observations she shares, in the answers he gives the reader just has a sinking feeling that something is going to give and it is not going to be a happy outcome. Either Frances will continue to feel somehow less, she is going to continue feeling diminished, no matter how much he says he loves her and she is just as beautiful. The reader doesn't know the outcome, but those first vibrantly happy moments on a sunny day turn to resignation and maybe bitterness by story's end. How many women can relate to this? How many girlfriends and wives? I know I could and I know how that ended. This is a story that hit a nerve with me, even now, more than half a century later.
I read it and thought, 'wow', he really nailed it on the head. This, along with two other stories by Shaw ("The Monument" and "The Man Who Married French Wife"), which of course now I will be looking for to read, were adapted to stage and filmed as part of the Broadway Theatre Archive and happily my library has a copy so I can watch it next weekend! This is a story definitely worth searching for!
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This week's (July 6 &13 issue) New Yorker story is by Chilean author, Alejandro Zambra called "Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1". You can read it here (go ahead, it's a good story--nudge, nudge), but be warned there will be a test at the end of the story so pay attention! It's a story within a story--bookended by a group of students admitting to a rather open-minded teacher (who later becomes a metro conductor) their habit of copying and cheating on tests, is a story about two twins who become famous and successful lawyers by . . . well, that would be telling the best part of the story. It's a very amusing parody that the author wrote for a collection of stories all based on a section of a Chilean university entrance exam (which I think must be hugely amusing as this story was certainly very creatively done). You can read the author's Q&A here. I was introduced to Zambra before through another short story appearing in The New Yorker. I liked it so much I bought two of his novellas, which I still have not yet read (a little nudge, nudge to myself I think). Books to look forward to.
I'm not sure where my short story reading will take me next weekend--maybe I will continue on with this volume of New Yorker stories. Check back next weekend.