Fat Books & Thin Women

Gushing: Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World

It would be hard for me to choose just one of Roald Dahl’s books to label a “favorite,” but if I had to it would probably be Danny, The Champion of the World. When I was eight years old or whatever and read this novel for the first time I don’t remember being unduly impressed, but it’s a book that grows on me with the years. There are no witches, no giants, no speaking foxes, no chocolate factories, no glass elevators, just a father and his son, and that’s what makes this book so special. Unlike Dahl’s other children’s books this one is set firmly in the real world.

Danny’s mother died when he was four months old, and he’s since been raised by his father on a small plot of land on which they have a two-pump gas station, a one-car garage, and a gypsy caravan for living in. Danny starts school two years late, when he’s seven, because his father doesn’t want to send him off until he’s learned how to take a small engine apart and put it back together again; early on, his father says, “You know something, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world” (15).

One night Danny wakes up to find that his father isn’t in the caravan, or in the garage, or in the outhouse. When his father gets home he reveals his greatest secret: that he’s a poacher and spent the night in Hazell’s Wood on an unsuccessful mission to steal a pheasant. The owner of Hazell’s Wood is this offensive, bloated, red-faced brewer who each year holds the best pheasant hunt in the country. It’s his one day of the year to feel important and liked by the people he wants to be in with, and for a bunch of very good reasons Danny and his father decide to pull off the greatest poaching expedition of all time.

Somehow the things I love about Roald Dahl I love even more when his story is so firmly set in our world. It’s not just that he can create these magical and awesome and funny stories about things like giants blowing dreams into children’s windows (the BFG makes an appearance in Danny, by the way), but that he can make the everyday seem just as funny and wonderful as a country full of loafing bone-crunching giants. Also that he never, ever censors this reality: I mean, he wrote this entire novel about a father and his son stealing pheasants. Of course Hazell deserves it – he’s the sort of person who digs tiger traps in his woods to catch poachers, risking breaking their necks to save his pheasants – and Danny and his father are clearly the moral victors here, but I can’t imagine most writers doing this.

Danny is a very funny book on top of all its other fine qualities, like when Danny tries to rethink poaching in the context of children’s games:

“Then how do we stop the keepers from seeing us?”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s the fun of the whole thing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hide and seek. It’s the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.”

“You mean because they’ve got guns?”

“Well,” he said, “that does add a bit of flavor to it, yes.” (123)

Or when Danny is writing about his school and all its teachers, and brings up Mr. Snoddy, the headmaster:

He was a small round man with a huge scarlet nose. I felt sorry for him having a nose like that. It was so big and inflamed it looked as though it might explode at any moment and blow him up.

A funny thing about Mr. Snoddy was that he always brought a glass of water with him into class, and this he kept sipping right through the lesson. At least everyone thought it was a glass of water. Everyone, that is, except me and my best friend, Sidney Morgan. (103-104)

Of course Danny figures out why Mr. Snoddy has that inflamed nose and is such a careful hydrator!

Dahl gives us the good vs. bad, the poor vs. the rich, the first-time nine-year-old poacher being the one to figure out the Greatest Poaching Scheme of All Time, crawling around in woods, adventure, risk of “poacher’s bottom” (being peppered with buckshot on the retreat), but mostly this father-son relationship. Danny’s love for his father tumbles off every page of this book and I really, really love Dahl for writing this. And I’d like to thank whoever donated this book to my school’s library and made it possible for me to reread it. And I’d like to ask you to go to your library right now, this very second, and check out Danny, The Champion of the World: the greatest book of our time, or at least pretty high on the list.

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Story Sundays: Raymond Carver’s “Beginners”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, add your thoughts in the comments.

When I started reading Raymond Carver’s short stories I was startled to come across similar stories in different collections of his. I say “similar” because they had the same base, but the stories were so different that they inhabited different worlds – maybe characters had the same names (or not), but the way their histories and actions were fleshed out was so different that the stories didn’t always feel like they had the same author.

So this week I’m going off a little different with the stories feature. There’s a story to read, Carver’s “Beginners”, but there’s also a version of the story showing the edits of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish. The story as edited by Lish became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The New Yorker shows the original draft of the story with Lish’s edits sort of superimposed over it – so it’s not the easiest of reads, but it gives you a sense of how arbitrary some of the changes to the story are (changing characters’ names) and also of how harsh Lish’s edits were. In “Beginners” the characters are talking about love and hate and the sort of middle ground between, with Herb McGinnis telling a story about an old couple who were in a car crash and spent weeks in intensive care, unable to see each other. At last the couple are reunited. This story is the focal point of “Beginners”, the part of the story around which everything else circles and begins to come into focus. Lish cut huge swathes of McGinnis’s story, changing even basic details like the arrangement of the couple’s room(s).

I prefer the first version of the story, “Beginners” as it existed before it saw Lish’s knife. I feel the same way about another of Carver’s stories, “A Small Good Thing”, the one that helped me understand just how unforgiving Lish’s edits were.

When I first read the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I was enthralled by the style, by the spareness of it. Now, knowing how much of that came from Lish, I’m not sure what I think of it. Lish created something extraordinary in those stories, but I think they should be read, too, as they were before Lish got to them. Whichever version of the stories you prefer, it’s interesting to get this glimpse of the editing process, and of what a powerful editor can do (in ways good and bad) to a writer’s work.

Which version of the story do you prefer?

Read “Beginners”

Read “Beginners” with Lish’s edits

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Classic Read: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Lily Bart must be one of the greatest characters in American literature. In her Edith Wharton has created a woman who is rarely aware of her motivations, who prides herself a manipulator of people but lacks the attention span to carry any of her plans to fruition, who is presented time and time again with opportunities for love or a strong marriage, who treats with disdain those who fall outside of her social order but whose occasional disdain for that same social order prevents her from ever fully placing herself in any of her actions.

The House of Mirth, set in 1890s New York, opens as Lily leaves the city for a weekend. This trip provides a template of sorts for Lily’s life: looking for wrinkles in the mirror, balancing her checkbook, pursuing a wealthy young man but being distracted at the crucial moment by someone else. In this case, it’s her pursuit of Percy Gryce being derailed by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, a lawyer for whom she has some romantic feelings, whether she acknowledges them or not. Lily loses Gryce, of course, but until learning of his engagement to another woman remains convinced that she can pull the strings and charm her way out of her errors.

That’s the thing that is at once so endearing and frustrating about Lily: she never seems to believe herself out of control, even when the direction of things says so clearly that she is not in control. She has Gus Trenor, the husband of a friend, invest some money so that she can pay off her mounting bills, and too late realizes that the $9000 he gives her is his money, not hers; she is caught in the midst of a collapsing marriage and ignores the evidence that it is she, not the husband or wife, who will be thrown out of society, until it is too late and her former friends have cast her aside; she lives on the belief that she will be inheriting $400,000 from her aunt, failing to realize that her aunt has no reason to live by this plan the way she does.

Lily isn’t a bad person, but she is one who only ever does things halfway. The event that cements her fall from society, George Dorset’s realization that his wife Bertha is having an affair (a revelation that comes when Lily is accompanying them on a trip, acting somewhat unwittingly to distract George from his wife’s whereabouts and whatabouts), could have been salvaged if she only blackmailed Bertha Dorset with a packet of Bertha’s love letters she possesses. Again, frustrating: Lily believes herself too good a person to do this, until her fall is nearly complete and she realizes that using the letters is her only chance to salvage her position and marry. When another form of salvation presents itself in the form of George Dorset, who is willing to divorce his wife and marry Lily, she turns away, failing to understand that while such a match would be frowned upon by society, she would ultimately be in a better position than she is in without George Dorset at her side.

The same might be said of her relationship with Simon Rosedale, a social climber who proposes marriage just before Lily is invited on the Dorset’s trip. Rosedale is frank about needing a wife who will introduce him to those members of society he can’t reach on his own. It’s not until Lily herself is shunned by these people that she realizes the benefits a marriage with Rosedale could offer; but as with the letters, as with so many things, she realizes the need to act far too late.

Lawrence Selden, the lawyer, is the only man Lily ever feels something approaching love for, but their relationship is repeatedly thwarted by one or the other. Lily sees herself as a better person, or as having the potential to be a better person, when she is with Lawrence, but for various reasons – a tendency to believe gossip, the belief that he is too poor for the likes of Lily Bart – he avoids her for most of the novel.

This is a review not well-suited for someone who hasn’t read Wharton’s novel – writing these sorts of posts seems to be becoming a habit of mine. It’s hard for me to collect my thoughts on this novel, which was (if you are wondering) extraordinary for its portrayal of the inner workings of New York society at the turn of the century. It didn’t take much for a person to swiftly exit the upper echelons of that society, which is something that Lily doesn’t grasp for most of the novel. She always holds herself a little above the rest of society, unable to identify herself with those women, like Carry Fisher, who are “social fixers” and probably the closest approximation to what Lily herself is.

But gosh, gosh, gosh. This is the third book I’ve read by Wharton recently (preceded by The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome), and I like her more and more. Can this woman do no wrong? All writers should take some lessons from her on how to describe but not too explicitly.

Lily: She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew.

Different people serve different purposes: Miss Corby’s role was jocularity: she always entered the conversation with a handspring.

Selden on Lily: …he said to himself, somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art.

Mrs. Penisten: …she seated herself on one of the glossy purple arm-chairs; Mrs. Peniston always sat on a chair, never in it.

Lily on truth: “The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe…”

Society and Lily: Society did not turn away from her, it simply drifted by, preoccupied and inattentive, letting her feel, to the full measure of her humbled pride, how completely she had been the creature of its favour.

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Review: Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever

Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever started out as the book I was carrying to school as guard against empty periods (see: all my plans to use free periods for planning tend to fall apart because the internet isn’t working, or the director’s office with the printer is locked, or the director’s computer isn’t recognizing my USB), then turned into the book I read before I fell asleep at night, then finally into the book that I was just plain reading. Despite aspects of Barrett’s writing style that trailed and frustrated me from story to story, this is one of the best story collections I can recall reading; with the title novella that closes the collection, Barrett recovers from any and all errors I saw in her writing in the preceding stories.

Barrett’s stories are split about half-and-half in their subject matter, numbers that I’m using broadly to mean that half the stories are set in a fairly contemporary period, and that half are more along the lines of historical fiction. Almost all the stories are concerned with science or with characters who are concerned, even if obliquely, with sciences: they work in medicine or in the sciences, or are close to someone who does.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is about the wife of a professor, a woman whose immigrant grandfather accidentally killed a man (because of her) when she was still a child. Her courtship with her husband, as she tells it, centers on his love of Gregor Mendel and her grandfather having known Mendel; she gives her then-future-husband a letter Mendel had written. Her stories, the stories that her grandfather told her, have been taken by her husband and incorporated into his college lectures, and one of the more interesting points of this sometimes slow story is when she takes the telling back from her husband.

“The English Pupil,” with Carl Linnaeus as its main character, is another slow one, interesting mostly for its vision of a great mind in collapse. See:

His mind, which has once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. (35)

“The Littoral Zone” is, gosh, another slow story, but one that doesn’t offer the rewards of “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.” About a couple who long ago abandoned their respective families in order to be with one another, Barrett is too plain here about their disappointments with their lives. I believe as much as anyone that, whatever writing teachers say, telling can be as powerful as showing when done by the right person; but Barrett here does nearly nothing but tell. After reading a passage like the one below I wanted to scream: “God, just let us see this!”:

They’re sensible people, and very well-mannered; they remind themselves that they were young then and are middle-aged now, and that their fierce attraction would naturally ebb with time. Neither likes to think about how much of the thrill of their early days together came from the obstacles they had to overcome. Some days, when Ruby pulls into the driveway still thinking about her last class and catches sight of Jonathan out in the garden, she can’t believe the heavyset figure pruning shrubs so meticulously is the man for whom she fought such battles. Jonathan, who often wakes very early, sometimes stares at Ruby’s sleeping face and thinks how much more gracefully his ex-wife is aging. (55)

“Rare Bird” is where things began to turn for me in a serious way. Set in the 1760s, the story centers on a woman, Sarah Anne, who was raised with the same education her brother received but finds herself unable to put it to use. She fits neither in the world of the men her brother spends time with, debating the great scientific issues of the day, nor in the world of women like her brother’s fiancee, who were raised to be charming rather than skilled debaters. I could almost feel Sarah Anne’s joy when she meets Catherine, a woman who is similarly learned; “When Catherine is excited, bits of all she has ever read fly off her like water from a churning lump of butter” (74). This story succeeds where the earlier ones fell flat in large part because Barrett leaves so little known at story’s end. What happens to Sarah Anne or to Catherine is unknown, and gives the reader his or her first chance, of this collection, to wonder at the characters and their motivations and where they will land.

“Soroche,” then, a story about Zaga, a widowed second wife disposing of her husband’s estate, is in some ways a disappointment, but the idea of this story and Zaga’s character are striking. Aspects of it are hackneyed (a photo of a three-months pregnant Zaga, hidden by her husband because she lost the baby, discovered by her after his death), and Barrett sometimes tells things too flatly for my liking, but something in this one stuck with me. This passage captures the things I like about the story (the idea of Zaga shedding her husband’s money as a means of freeing herself from her past) and the things I don’t like (that that idea is stated so plainly):

“How did you lose Joel’s money?” they asked. “What could you have been thinking?”

She could not explain that it had nothing to do with thought. It was the buzz, the rush, the antic joy of flinging her old life to the winds. She was abashed by her final loss, adrift and upset – and yet there was also the fact that she had not felt so content in years. Every trace of the life Joel had given her was gone, and she had nothing left to live on but her wits. (98)

“Birds With No Feet,” again offers a striking figure in its main character, Alec Carrière, a traveler and collector of specimens who is keenly aware of his failure to rise above the everyday of his job. He collects specimens with the expectation that the money he earns from them will “finally set him free to pursue his studies in peace” (102), but his travels are a catalogue of misfortunes: illness, fire, not having the scientific mind of his contemporaries, forever being second in his findings, coming from a country that is falling into civil war and no longer has an interest in his specimens or the live Birds of Paradise he brings home to a wrecked nation. This is a gorgeous story with some striking images, as when Alec and another character are ill and alternate “bouts of fever as if they were playing lawn-tennis” (112).

“The Marburg Sisters” is, gosh, just weird, and I’m still not sure what I think of it. The narrative voice threw me off, for one; parts of the story are written in the first-person plural, by one of the Marburg sisters, but both sisters are referred to in the third-person. As in:

The rest of the night is mostly lost to us now, but we remember a handful of things. Sometime before dawn we either did or didn’t call our father, waking him to beg him not to sell the winery. But why would we have done this, if we did it? Rose would not have wanted to echo the phone call Bianca claimed to have made the night before, and even if she’d forgotten that, the winery was not a place we ever visited. (135)

I can in theory understand the desire to leave it unclear which of the sisters is narrating sections of the story, or even to suggest that the sisters are acting as a kind of dual narrator, their two voices forming one, but the whole feel of it is weird and unpleasant. Along with other things, like how this key section of the story (see: communion with dead mother) is repeatedly stressed as being a huge and potentially shattering secret, but which never seems that shattering or that much of a secret, more just wacky and druggy. But because we’re told, again and again, that this is a big thing, we have to believe it, despite never seeing any real evidence to support this notion of Big Deal-ness the whole event has.

Then, at last, we come to “Ship Fever,” the novella closing the collection, and man is it a good close. About ten pages into “Ship Fever” I’d forgotten about “The Marburg Sisters” and how duped I felt when I got to the end of it (I read the whole story? What for?). “Ship Fever” is about the Irish Potato Famine, about people who are trying to do things that are right because they feel right to them or look right to others, about the ways that against something as huge as the famine and the resulting mass emigration from Ireland human action can be insignificant, but for the stories of changed lives that emerge from the filth. The story centers on Dr. Lauchlin Grant, who finds that his medical studies abroad limit his practice in Canada, where bloodletting is still regarded as the height of medical care, and who is in love with, and in many ways trying to live up to, a childhood friend who is now married to a man reporting on the potato famine, a man so confident “of his place in the world that he signed everything, even his newspaper articles, with those initials [AA]” (161). Lauchlin accepts a job at the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, which is overwhelmed with shiploads of the sick and dying. Some of the best passages in this collection are those describing the sight of these ships stretching down the river, in which the water is barely visible for all the contaminated bedding that has been thrown overboard. “Ship Fever” is a beautiful story, and it’s worth reading the collection just for this one, in which Lauchlin’s impulsive decision to pull one woman off a ship and into the overcrowded “hospital” on the island frames his character, without Barrett ever needing to tell us that this is what is going on.

Barrett’s main failing in these stories is a tendency to state things flat-out rather than leaving them to the reader, a fault that she only rarely commits in “Ship Fever.” Barrett’s writing improves at length, something that gives me some hope for the day I decide to explore one of her novels. I am not sure whether the stories really became better as I worked through the collection, or if it’s more than I grew into Barrett’s writing style as I went along. Whatever it is, I’m glad that I read through to the extraordinary “Ship Fever.”

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Story Sundays: Roddy Doyle’s “Ash”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, add your thoughts in the comments.

It was just St. Patty’s Day. I am one for making obvious statements and obvious posts, so today I’m saying things like – well, the first sentence of this post – and linking up to Roddy Doyle’s story “Ash”. Why? Because Roddy Doyle is an Irish writer, of course, but also because he writes stunning and always true dialogue and lands in this happy place between literary and commercial fiction, or maybe doesn’t land between them but manages to bring the two together.

“Ash” is about Nick, whose wife Ciara has just told him she’s leaving him. He’s trying to figure things out, like what it means that she comes over at night a couple times, and what to say to their two daughters about their mother’s absence, and seeks advice from his brother.

My only bone with the story (and I mention it only because I hope that one of my younger and hipper readers, not as averse to using cellphones or having friends as I am, will be able to illuminate something for me) comes in the text messages Nick exchanges with his brother. Doyle’s dialogue is always spot-on, but these texts seemed labored and awkward – like, I get that people get lazy when texting, but the letters Nick and Mickey leave out seem utterly random, and there’s more abbreviation than I think anyone actually uses. (Except a 13-year-old girl in New Jersey?) Like, “Hav u foned hr?” Or when his brother texts him with some plans: “Jcksns, snday” which translates to “Jacksons, Sunday.” But why leave out the “u”? When you’re texting, wouldn’t you type “sun” instead of “snday”? And when has “hr” become an abbreviation for “her” rather than “hour”? Do people really shorten three-letter words to become two-letter words? Do people in Ireland abbreviate differently than people in America? Do Irish cell phone companies charge for each and every character, necessitating awkward abbreviations of restaurant names? Is it an age thing? Or do the phones of Roddy Doyle’s characters not have T9, making it both possible and easy (I am trying to imagine a world in which typing “Jcksns” takes less brain power than typing “Jacksons,” really I am) to write messages like Nick and Mickey do?

I didn’t mean to write so much about that. Pretend that the bulk of this post isn’t about T9, go read the story, then tell me if Doyle doesn’t write some great dialogue and some subpar text messages.

Read “Ash”

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