Monday, March 28, 2011

The Official J. Wiltz Valentine's Day Love Story Countdown

Well, dear readers, we've been here before. We've seen this room and we've walked this floor... In other words, we all know how this works. As with my Halloween short story countdown back in October, I'll be reading selections from the Everyman Library's collection of love stories throughout the month of February and then posting my thoughts about them here on my blog. Whenever possible, I'll also provide links to websites where you can find and read these stories for yourselves. You shouldn't be surprised that I'm reading a book of love stories, by the way. I admitted a long time ago that I'm a born romantic. Enjoy.

The Valentine's Day Love Story Countdown

(1) "Clair de Lune" by Guy de Maupassant. In just 5 short pages, Maupassant treats his readers to a developing character, a thoughtful challenge to religious tradition, and a whole bunch of moonlight. A little flowery at times, but it raises a beautiful question: if the Earth is God's work of art, what is the artist trying to say? [Suggested background music: "Hallelujah"; "Because the Night"; "Music of the Night"]

(2) "Here We Are" by Dorothy Parker. Like just about everything Dorothy Parker wrote, this story is absolutely perfect: realistic, yet grandiose; funny, yet thoughtful; comic, yet somehow tragic. Written almost entirely in dialogue (and believe me, no one does dialogue like Dorothy), it tells the story of a newlywed couple whose marriage doesn't exactly start off on the right foot. Great stuff. Seriously, invest in a Dorothy Parker short story collection and read it. I can't find this story online, but here's a full version of the Dorothy Parker biopic, Mrs.Parker and the Vicious Circle - easily one of the best movies ever made about a writer. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"; "Fell in Love With a Girl"; "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"; "Better Off Without a Wife"]

(3) "Lady's Dream" by Tobias Wolff. It's often said that opposites attract. Of course, it's also said that birds of a feather flock together. So which is it? That's the question that lingers at the heart of "Lady's Dream," a bittersweet story about two very different people who have somehow ended up together. Wolff has managed a difficult task in this story, exploring the differences in his characters' families, psychologies, personalities, geographies, etc. without making the reader dislike either of them. Along the way he makes several good jokes and acknowledges the lingering tension between Yankees and Southerners. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first Tobias Wolff story I've ever read. It definitely won't be the last. Check it out. [Suggested background music: "Water Runs Dry"]

(4) “That in Aleppo Once…” by Vladimir Nabokov. The more I read Nabokov, the more I become convinced that there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t accomplish in fiction. Set against the backdrop of WWII, “That in Aleppo Once” traces the story of a married couple who are forced to flee Paris after the “gentle Germans” come roaring in. (Keep an eye out for the narrator’s keen assessment of Hitler.) They become separated in the process, and when they are finally reunited the man realizes that his wife is not the person he thought she was. A brilliant exploration of dishonesty in relationships and politics: so tragic and absurd. [Suggested background music: “Liar”; “Easy Lover”; “I Love the Way You Lie”; “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”]

(5) "Blood, Sea" by Italo Calvino. A sonnet for science geeks. Lots of people have said things like "I love with you with every fiber of my being" and "I have feelings for you that come from deep inside," but Calvino is the only person I know of who actually took the time to examine what those sorts of statements really mean. "Blood, Sea" describes romance at the level of cells and molecules, a perpetual cycle of attraction, absorption, and destruction with deep roots in the origins of humanity. Leave it to an Italian to take a topic like Evolution and make it sexy. (Technically, Italo Calvino was from Cuba, but he grew up in Italy.) Test it out and see what conclusions you reach. [Suggested background music: "Bleeding Love"; "She Blinded Me With Science"; "Part of Me" ; "A Case of You"]

(6) "Immortality" by Yasunari Kawabata. The writers of Japan have always been amazingly skilled at presenting profound truths in simple, uncluttered language. (Lest we forget, Japan is the country that gave us the haiku.) Kawabata is no exception. This story is very short and very obvious, but few can argue with its central message - Love is eternal. Check it out if you can find it somewhere. [Suggested background music: "Endless Love"; "My Immortal"; "Together Forever"]

(7) "A Temporary Matter" by Jhumpa Lahiri. As a writer, I actually felt jealous while reading this story. Honestly, it's that good. Lahiri tells the story of a married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, who are experiencing difficulty in their relationship after the death of their child. The writing is very simple, but you can really feel the weight of their heartache as things fall in and out of place. There are multiple layers of meaning, but nothing pretentious or sentimental. A really really great story. Don't pass let it pass you by. [Suggested background music: "Stinkfist"; "I Can't Make You Love Me"; "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough"; "I Will Always Love You"; "Love Will Tear Us Apart"]

(8) "The Woman Who Came at Six O'Clock" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This one's a sweet piece of strangeness about two lonely people sharing a moment of each other's company. If you ask me, they would probably be happy together if it weren't for the secret that will ultimately keep them apart. If you want to find out what that secret is, track this story down and read it. Time with Gabo is always time well spent. [Suggested background music: "We've Got Tonight"; "Roxanne"; "Twinkle"; "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia"; "Cell Block Tango"]

(9) "Dead Mabelle" by Elizabeth Bowen. You really have to give Elizabeth Bowen credit for her foresight here. In 1929, long before the advent of television, celebrity magazines, and Studio 54, she recognized and wrote about the phenomenon now commonly referred to as the celebrity crush. "Dead Mabelle" is the story of an alienated man who falls in love with a silent movie star. When she dies unexpectedly, he struggles with the reality that she is dead (in real life) and yet still alive (in her movies). So, here's a point to ponder: are celebrities ever really alive to us? We know so much about them, yet most of us never actually meet them. It's an interesting question, even though this story is a little slow and obvious at times. [Suggested background music: "You're Beautiful"; "Mister Superstar"; "Take, Take, Take"; "Candle in the Wind (Goodbye Norma Jean)"]

(10) "Swept Away" by T. Coraghessan ("T.C.") Boyle. This story is quite literally about a whirlwind romance. More specifically, it's about an Irish whirlwind romance. The narrator's tone seems a little contrived at times (I know the Irish take great pride in their drinking skills, but the phrase "meditating over a pint of bitter at the rattling window of Magnuson's Pub" feels a little forced, a little too Irish), but it's easy to follow and tells a nice story. Also, Boyle's depiction of the wind has a hint of magical realism that adds a nice fairy tale quality to the whole thing. A good quick afternoon read. Be sure to read it if you get the chance. [Suggested background music: "Crush"; "My Bonnie"; "A Summer Song"]   

(11) "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" by D.H. Lawrence. This is the perfect love story for anyone who’s in a dark kind of mood. As her family and fortune fall into decline, Mabel Pervins begins suffering through a severe bout of depression. Enter Dr. Jack Fergusson, who comes to love her in her darkest hours. Lawrence’s writing frequently dips into melodrama (example: “It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible.”), but the story covers a lot of important ground: the nature and symptoms of deep sadness; the difficulty of surrendering to Love (even Love you truly want to experience); the security of money; and the special intimacy that exists between doctors and their patients. It also conveys a very important message that some of you will recognize from Titanic: if you save a woman from killing herself, she’ll let you have sex with her. Take a look at it sometime. [Suggested background music: “Wild Horses“;   “Bring Me to Life“; “Drown“; “Theme from The Hours“; “Theme from The Piano“]

(12) “Mr. Botibol” by Roald Dahl. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I have a long history of love for Roald Dahl. When I was growing up, I read all of his children’s books and watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at least two or three million times. Then, in 2003, I entered (and won) a Roald Dahl Sequel Writing Contest. So maybe I’m a little biased here, but this is my favorite story in the collection so far. Mr.Botibol is an awkward, odd-looking man who, in his own words, “cannot remember having had a single success of any sort during my whole life.” But then one day he has a sudden brush with greatness and everything changes. What follows is a very sweet story about giving in to crazy impulses, the inspiration of good art, the healing power of music, the development of fetishes, and the special kind of love that forms between unusual people. My favorite line: “Don’t worry about me, Mason…I’m not mad. I’m just enjoying myself.” Download the PDF and read this one. [Suggested background music: “Allegria“; “Music of My Heart“; “My Funny Valentine“; “Morning Has Broken“; "Ode to Joy" ]

(13) “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you know Fitzgerald, you probably know what to expect from this one. Golf courses. Dinner parties. Middle-class young men who fall in love with flighty rich girls they can’t have. Heartache caused by class warfare. The pain of impermanence, etc., etc. It’s not that he’s predictable; his style and subject matter are just very recognizable. And he’s really at his best in this story. Check it out and spend a little time with this quintessentially American author. Note: watch for the comment about the young men who welcomed the coming of World War I – now there’s a conversation starter if you know what to do with it. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: “She Talks to Angels“; “Cry, Cry, Cry“; "Friends in Low Places"; “Uptown Girl“]

(14) “The Room” by William Trevor. This story, put simply, is a well-written tale of infidelity. The main character, Katherine, is not in love with the man she’s having an affair with. She’s just trying to sort through some difficulties with her husband (difficulties, by the way, that may or may not include a murder). Personally, I’ve never understood this way of thinking. “I made love to her because I couldn’t stand to be there alone without you.” “I kissed him to see if I was still in love with you.” HUH? It seems to me that if you need to find out whether you still have feelings for someone, the answer is probably no. Trust me, you’ll know Love when it’s there. Not exactly my cup of tea, but like I said it’s well-written. If you get a chance, read through it and see what you think. [Suggested background music: “Married, But Not to Each Other“; “Famous Blue Raincoat“; “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)“; “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend"; "All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You”]

(15) “May” by Ali Smith. From its opening lines - I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom. – this story promises to be a very different sort of love story. Reading over it, I believe there are several ways it can be interpreted. (1) It’s a longer version of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem, "Trees." (2) It’s a story about the deep connection we all have with Nature. (3) It’s a story about left-wing environmental politics and the love involved in adamantly supporting a cause. (4) It’s a story about mental illness and the challenge of loving someone who’s gone batshit crazy. Or (5) It’s a combination of the four. I’m of the opinion that the answer is 5. (Lord knows environmentalists and the mentally ill are not exactly mutually exclusive.) Structurally, this story is very interesting. Note, for instance, the way neither narrator is ever really identified as a man or a woman, and the way they both speak as if they’re addressing the other (multiple personality disorder?). Also, there are little hints of Salinger and Poe hiding here and there for the discerning reader to pick up on. I’m not much on the ending, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you can track it down. [Suggested background music: “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy“; “Nearly Lost You“; “The Nurse Who Loved Me“; “Walkin' After Midnight“; “Boys in the Trees“]

(16) “The Stranger” by Katherine Mansfield. I'm sure everyone knows the old saying about how “it takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it.” But just in case you need a visual aid, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Stranger” is here to illustrate the point. Mr. Hammond absolutely adores his wife Janey, who’s been away in Europe for several months. But when she returns, he immediately gets the sense that something is out of order. Janey isn't telling him the whole truth about her travels...or is she? Like Mr. Hammond, the reader is left with a lot of unanswered questions that have any number of plausible answers. If you liked that movie Doubt, you’ll really enjoy this. And if you’ve ever had your trust in someone shaken, you’ll stand up and applaud at Mansfield’s final sentence. Nicely done. [Suggested background music: “Who is He (And What Is He to You)?“; “Suspicious Minds“; “Leave My Girl Alone“;   “I Heard It Through the Grapevine“; “Would I Lie to You?“]

(17) "Armande" by Colette. Here's something you don't see very often in our cynical century: a simple love story with a happy ending. The two main characters have secretly been in love with each other for a very long time, but neither of them has done anything about it...until now. Colette does a nice job of describing the shyness, nervousness, and push-and-pull that comes with finally taking a chance with Love. There are also a few fun parts describing the relationships between brothers and sisters. Fans of When Harry Met Sally will probably find something to like about this one. [Suggested background music: "Give Me a Happy Ending"; "Head Over Feet"; "Realize"; "Save the Best for Last"]

(18) " Bluebeard's Egg " by Margaret Atwood. One of the stereotypes about women in relationships is that they tend to overthink things and read significance into things that men aren't paying any attention to. After reading this story, I'm fairly certain that stereotype is true. The whole thing is one long mental process - a woman trying to calculate her husband's thoughts and behavior. A very interesting look into the female psyche. The ending is a bit of a let-down (feels like a cop-out), but if you're a writer you should definitely check this one out for the parts where Atwood's character (Sally) offers insights into the writing process. The link above will take you to a PDF. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: "She Drives Me Crazy"]

(19) " Terrific Mother " by Lorrie Moore. I'll say this for what it's worth. Despite the fact that "Terrific Mother" is the longest story in the Everyman collection by a good 10 or 12 pages, I managed to get through it in about half the time it took me to read some of the others. In spite of a few flaws (some of the dialogue is written in an artificial style similar to a movie or sitcom), it's definitely a page-turner. Moore opens the show by describing a brutal event that haunts her main character Adrienne throughout the story. Surprisingly, though, this is not a dark and morbid tale. It's actually very funny, especially in the scenes where Adrienne makes fun of the academics she meets at a conference she attends with her husband. There's a lot going on here, everything from a search for forgiveness to a discussion of Keynesian economics. Effortless complexity. Read it if you get the chance. [Suggested background viewing: "You have to forgive me..."]

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