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Short Story Study: The Chaste Clarissa

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A twice-divorced philanderer holidays where he has always holidayed, on Martha’s Vineyard. On the ferry he meets for the first time a beautiful young woman who has recently married into a bird-watching, rock-collecting family of average Joes, but her husband won’t be joining Clarissa on the island, so our viewpoint character decides immediately that she shall be his next conquest. He sets up a plan to make this happen.

SETTING

Place

Vineyard Haven is a community within the town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States.

Tisbury

Time

Published in 1952, this is a story set in the same time. This was The Decade of the Housewife, an era which we still tend to idealise, forgetting perhaps, the problems described by Betty Friedan and others.

Milieu

As usual in Cheever’s stories thus far, ‘The Chaste Clarissa’ is a story about upper-class people with upper-class issues. We have holiday homes and housemaids and copious amounts of spare time. Whatever else was going on in the world is irrelevant to these characters, underscored by the fact that this is set on a literal island.

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Short Story Study: The Cure by John Cheever

martini

One Cheever-endorsed Cure for Loneliness: Drink many martinis and forget the difference between reality and delusion.

In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats.

Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger.

John Truby, Secrets of Genre

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

From The New Yorker:

The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.

The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story, however — theirs is only a surface level summary. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true?

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Middle Grade Novel Study: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God

As an adolescent I was keen to get my hands on the complete works of Judy Blume, but unfortunately only a select few were available to me. I’ve only just read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume’s first and perhaps greatest, and because this year is my year of studying John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, of course I was struck by how neatly this story fits the principles of good storytelling — whether Blume herself was analytic about this as she wrote, or intuitive.

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Short Story Study: Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first this reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

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Picturebook Study: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen Book Cover

When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:

Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.

Pandering to, or presuming shorter attention spans?

This picture book is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

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Short Story Study: The Pot Of Gold by John Cheever

Cheever isn’t exactly well-known for his ability to get inside women’s heads and depict the other half of humanity as fully human. If he wrote a story with a rounded female protagonist, I’m yet to read it. In this story, at least, the main male character has something to learn from his wife. This short story demonstrates that even if Cheever didn’t feel he understood women sufficiently to be able to write from a female perspective, he at least grasped the essence of white male privilege of 1930s New York.

John Cheever demonstrates a complex understanding of what money, or the pursuit of it, can do to the psyche. Though there are many stories and folktales about the evil of money, the messages here are a little more nuanced.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

In depression era New York, a young married couple feel that they live on the edge of poverty. In fact, they have enough money to afford an apartment and to go out to dinner on special occasions. But the husband is constantly after a get-rich fix, and spends a lot of money in this pursuit. When he goes off to war, the wife does quite well on her own with their daughter, having temporarily gone back to work. But when he returns, it’s back to high expenditures.

Eventually, the husband gets a lucky break. His uncle has saved a man’s life on Lake Eyrie, and through this connection, the husband is offered a very well paid job in California.

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Short Story Study: The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler:

A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.

SETTING

Place

This story takes place in the city but  from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.

The Tennysons live in a tenth floor apartment.

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Short Story Study: O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Stupidly optimistic, Evarts Molloy writes the first act of a play then uproots his family and takes them to New York on thirty-five dollars, which to him seems like a huge sum. Everything in New York seems to glitter. The reader — more worldly than Evarts and Alice — can see before the hapless protagonists do that these two are being taken for a ride, filled with false promises and dreams by unscrupulous New York agents.

SETTING

Location and Time

Wentworth Indiana seems to be a fictionalised town of the sort found scattered around rural Indiana in the 1940s: poor, with hard-working country folk and the odd local eccentric. This is the unseen setting of the story, though contrasted constantly with its urban inverse, New York. Continue reading

Short Story Study: The Enormous Radio by John Cheever

1940s radio

Hear The Enormous Radio read by Nathan Englander here.

When I was growing up my father knew a man whose hobby was to listen in to other people’s conversations on a radio you could get, but which I believe was illegal. Using this radio, it was possible to listen in on police conversations. He’d know before anyone else about accidents and domestic incidents, deaths and other awfulness. In this short story, likewise, a family thinks they are buying an ordinary radio, but what they get instead is a faulty appliance which — almost supernaturally — plays for them whatever is going on in their neighbours’ houses. This story was written in 1947, in an era where nobody could predict the advent of the Internet in the new century, but because the themes revolve around knowing other people’s business and how this knowledge affects you, The Enormous Radio reads as surprisingly modern.

This story has been described as an example of ‘Domestic Gothic’ literature:

Domestic Gothic fiction may be identified by its uneasy representation of the historical and socioeconomic developments known as the “domestic ideal.” The concept of “domesticity” goes beyond the mere occupation of the physical domestic space and encompasses more than household servicing as women’s work. Rather, it is a wholly ideological construct relating to the interpretation, as well as the use, of the domestic space. Domesticity emerged as a concept in the mid-eighteenth century, alongside the modernizing forces of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. As cottage industry gave way to larger-scale factory production, the nature of the home itself changed. For many, there was a separation of home from commercial premises and many women were removed from the world of remunerative employment altogether. As the domestic ideal became more influential, claustration within the domestic sphere and the possession of appropriate “domestic” qualities became requirements for female respectability. Meanwhile, traditional family relationships underwent radical change. Romantic ideas of companionate marriage and sentimentalized parent–child relationships, and also the development of the nuclear family, helped to create a concept of the home as a place presided over by a “domestic” woman, in which these newly defined relationships might be enjoyed.

Blackwell Reference Online

In ‘Domestic Gothic’ stories, the house becomes the place of trauma rather than the castle. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Goodnight Moon Cover

Goodnight Moon is an American picturebook classic, and is of particular interest because who would’ve thunk it? Margaret Wise Brown had a talent for creating odd-duck prose which went down a treat (and still does) with the preschool set. But is this book only of value for toddlers? Never.

See: What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon

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