Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Here at the End of All Things

And another book blog is complete.

Oh, Louis Untermeyer includes a final collection of little bits -- several pages of insults -- but they're nothing I haven't read before. Another book, like the Cokesbury Party Book (and blog) ending on a whimper, not a bang.

Nevermind. I enjoyed reading the book. I learned, I think, a bit about various writing styles and authors' voices, realizing that I like some, loathe others. Same will happen to me when I write.

C'est la guerre.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wait, What?

I've read "Entrance Fee," a short little chit of a story by Alexander Woolcott, a few times, and I just don't quite understand it.

Here we have an army garrison in France all plying for the attention of one Cosette, a pin-up girl. Somehow they get it in their heads that they'd each have to earn 5,000 Francs in order to have enough cash to take her out on a night on the town. They despair that they cannot raise that money, until one clever dick realizes that with 1,000 in the garrison, each could raise five francs and then dole the pot out by lottery.

So they do that. A country bumpkin wins the lottery. Their commanded, amused at their machinations, provides extra cash. The soldier and Cosettte have their night on the town. She's so amused by the tale she gives him back his five francs. End of story.

Anyone else out there read it? Can anyone explain why this is so darned funny, because I just don't get it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Always Delightful P.G. Wodehouse

First, we have to hear a bit from Jeeves and Wooster, especially as Wooster has a spot of trouble with Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Now, on to my introduction to Mr. Wodehouse and his delightful grasp of the absurd:

Deseret Industries, I think.

I buy most of my books used, with most of them coming from Deseret Industries, our local thrift store. I love perusing the stacks, looking at the books that people no longer want to read. Sometimes I pick up a good book, one by a familiar author, and wonder why the former owner gave it away. And sometimes I pick up a new book by a new author, and really have to wonder why anyone would give such an excellent book away.

I feel that way about everything P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote.

His airy, comic tales go a long way to doing what Vyvian despairs contemporary British television was doing during his time, thus:

But I don't care. I revel in reading and watching those comical British middle-class eccentrics. As much as Vyvian hates "The Good Life," I like P.G. Wodehouse, because he recognizes that at the base of nearly every human character lies an absurd little soul trying as hard as it can to get out, so he encourages it. As in this selection from "Uncle Fred Flits By," which Louis Untermeyer chose for the TOL:

So when, on the occasion to which I allude, he stood pink and genial on Pongo's hearth-rug, bulging with Pongo's lunch and wreathed in the smoke of one of Pongo's cigars, and said,:" And now, my boy, for a pleasant and instructive afternoon," you will readily understand why the unfortunate young clam gazed at him as he would have gazed at two-penn'orth of dynamite, had he discovered it lighting up in his presence.

"A what?" he said, giving at the knees and paling beneath the tan a bit.

"A pleasant and instructive afternoon," repeated Lord Ickenham, rolling the words round his tongue. "I propose that you place yourself in my hands and leave the program entirely to me."

Now, owing to Pongo's circumstances being such as to necessitate his getting into the aged relative's ribs at intervals and shaking him down for an occasional much-needed tenner or what not, he isn't in a position to use the iron hand with the old buster. but at these words he displayed a manly firmness.

"You aren't going to get me to the dog races again."

"No, no."

"You remember what happened last June?"

"Quite," said Lord Ickenham, "quite. Though I still think that a wiser magistrate would have been content with a mere reprimand."

So Pongo, in the clutches of his Uncle Fred -- Lord Ickenham -- ends up at, well, a comical place. I won't spoil the story. But you'll want to read it, for the comedy and for Wodehouse's tip-toe, tenterhook writing style which, with every paragraph, is both painlessly lyrical, real, and repeatable and also as attractive as a magnet pulling at iron filings. I very often read his books in a gulp, the prose keeps me going along so. Very few authors have the power to do that with me: Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Harry Harrison, JRR Tolkein, and P.G. Wodehouse. He's in good company, as far as that goes.

I'm not alone in my odd little obsession. This short story has its own Facebook page. Of course.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Consarnit, I Cain't Unnerstand A Durn Thang He's A-Sayin'!

At the time the United States was putting a man on the moon, the nation's television networks were undertaking a purge of nearly everything rural on television. Between 1969 and 1972, shows like Hee-Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and even Hogan's Heroes, as the nation's airwaves flipped from a heavy emphasis on programs in rural settings to those in urban settings -- including the venerable All in the Family and The Jeffersons and flopperoos like Maude and Good Times.

Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres, bitterly recounted "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it."

Now, I remember some of those shows with fondness. I remember some of the replacement, urban shows with fondness as well. But after reading Edward Noyes Westcott's "David Harum's Horse Trade," I'd have to say that if it were on the television and I were an executive, I'd be killing everything with a tree in it as well.

The story is fine enough, but suffers from an overdose of dialect. There were several times I had to stop and re-read and read again what the characters were saying -- and boy howdy did they say a lot -- to understand what the consarn they were saying. It's a dialectical treatment better left for radio -- and indeed, David Harum was the focus of a long-lasting radio show in the early half of the 20th century -- than for a book. It was also filmed twice, notably in 1935, in an adaptation that starred Will Rogers.

The dialogue kinda felt a lot like this, except not nearly as entertaining. And nothing got blowed up real good.

Here's a slab of text for you to sample. Those of you who like rural babbling, go here for the whole story.

"Wa'al, three four days after the shower, an' the story 'd got aroun' some—as you say, the deakin is consid'able of a talker—I got holt of[Pg 21] Dick—I've done him some favors an' he natur'ly expects more—an' I says to him: 'Dick,' I says, 'I hear 't Deakin Perkins has got a hoss that don't jest suit him—hain't got knee-action enough at times,' I says, 'an' mebbe he'll sell him reasonable.' 'I've heerd somethin' about it,' says Dick, laughin'. 'One of them kind o' hosses 't you don't like to git ketched out in the rain with,' he says. 'Jes' so,' I says. 'Now,' I says, 'I've got a notion 't I'd like to own that hoss at a price, an' that mebbe I c'd git him home even if it did rain. Here's a hunderd an' ten,' I says, 'an' I want you to see how fur it'll go to buyin' him. If you git me the hoss you needn't bring none on't back. Want to try?' I says. 'All right,' he says, an' took the money. 'But,' he says, 'won't the deakin suspicion that it comes from you?' 'Wa'al,' I says, 'my portrit ain't on none o' the bills, an' I reckon you won't tell him so, out an' out,' an' off he went. Yistidy he come in, an' I says, 'Wa'al, done anythin'?' 'The hoss is in your barn,' he says. 'Good fer you!' I says. 'Did you make anythin'?' 'I'm satisfied,' he says. 'I made a ten-dollar note.' An' that's the net results on't," concluded David, "that I've got the hoss, an' he's cost me jest thirty-five dollars."

For the curious, here's "Sunbonnet Sue," theme song for the old David Harum radio program. Enjoy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fifty Boners

I’m going to jump right in with Louis Untermeyer’s definition of the word boner with a lot more urgency than he likely felt way back in 1946, when the Treasury of Laughter was published:

A boner is a howler, a misprint, a right word in the wrong place (or vice versa), a slight error in association that turns a simple fact into a side-splitting absurdity.

There. Now that that is out of the way, I can get this out of the way as well:

So, on to the boners which were circulating in the pre-Internet days prior to 1946:
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.
  • Magna Charta said the King was not to order taxis without the consent of Parliament.
  • They gave William IV a lovely funeral. It took six men to carry the beer.
  • A metaphor is a thing you shout through.
  • Ibid was a famous Latin poet.
  • A Senator is half horse and half man.
  • Acrimony is what a man gives his divorced wife.
  • Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.
  • Three shots rang out. Two of the servants fell dead, the other went through his hat.
  • During the Napoleonic Wars crowned heads were trembling in their shoes.
And that’s all she wrote.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Updating the Goose

I’ve used this cartoon on the Treasury of Laughter before, of course. But it fits in so well with the next little bit, well, I just can’t resist.

Revamping those old Mother Goose tales, of course, is an old saw of the creative writer. Why, here’s Walter de la Mare telling us all about Jack and Jill:

Up to the top of the haunted turf
They climbed on moonlit hill;
Not a leaf rustled in the underbrush,
The listening air was still.

And only the noise of the water pail
As it struck on a jutting stone,
Clattered and jarred against the silence
As the two trod on alone.

Up to the moonlit peak they went;
And, though not a word would they say,
Their thoughts outnumbered a poet’s love-songs
In the first green weeks of May.

The stealthy shadows crept closer;
They clutched at the hem of Jill’s gown;
And there at the very top she stumbled,
And Jack came shuddering down.

Their cries rang out against the stillness,
Pitiful and high and thin.
And the echoes edged back still further
As the silence gathered them in.

There, typical pap and – whoah.

Yikes. Yeah, I guess, if you parse the words and read it without a sing-song voice, the original rhyme to jack and Jill is pretty macabre. Seeing it in this situation, of course, twists the situation enough to make the eerie situation of the original peek out of the simple, familiar words.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Celebrated – or Notorious – Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

I confess no great love for Mark Twain.

Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve tried reading many of his books – actually got all the way through “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court” – but I just can’t get the knack of Mark Twain. That isn’t to say he’s not a good writer, nor one of the icons of American letters. He is all that. I just don’t care for him much.

It’s not that he’s cranky, or cynical – those are his defining characteristics as an author. I just cannot form a connection with the guy, nor his books. There’s got to be something wrong with me.

Not so with his short story, inspiration to this blog post, and first stop in the World of Twain in the Treasury of Laughter. Twain’s ear for catching dialogue – and the insouciant relationship with the truth that many a spieler possesses – are endearing:
He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal'klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He'd give him a little hunch behind, and the next minute you'd see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut -- see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he'd nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most anything -- and I believe him. Why, I've seen him set Dan'l Webster down here on this floor -- Dan'l Webster was the name of the frog -- and sing out, "Flies, Dan'l, flies!" and quicker'n you could wink, he'd spring straight up, and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor'ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair-and-square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand, and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and ben everywheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.
Full text here. Though it’s hard to say full text with Twain, a notorious reviser – who once revised the story’s title to be “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” thus the occasional use you see of that term associated with the story.
Modern journalism tends to eradicate such linguistic treasure as uneducated – though there are some who practice its use with the ease that Twain shows here because they make the lingo as big and subtle a character as the person speaking it.

Good thing is that this story might open my indifferent mind to the Magic of Twain. Maybe I’ll try ol’ Huck Finn one more time . . .

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quintesentially American: Walter Mitty

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – in fact, most of any of James Thurber’s male characters – is the most American in American literature. He’s the little guy, doomed to anonymous toil without finding grace from Horatio Alger, Wall Street, Hollywood, nor the very God Himself. What pleasures and wonders that lie in store for him do not lie, as George Orwell famously wrote, in the sad stucco box he calls home, but in the fecundity of the mind allowed to wander and to explore the grandiose dreams of life never to be possessed by the dreamer.

Who has not, while in line at the McDonalds drive thru, delivered an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. Who has not, in the drawings and doodlings made on the yellow legal pad during that boring office meeting, imagined a Mickey Mouse emerging from the flotsam and bearing the creator – the artist, the creator, the dreamer – to a wonderful Disneyesque world of fame, fortune, and lifelong satisfaction?

If you have not dreamed of this, or dreamed whatever dream you have, then you are not American. Indeed, you are not human.

Danny Kaye knows:

Ah, but that could be me, not the fabulous Mr. Kaye, on the big screen, you say. You would be right. In your own mind, but wrong in regards to reality – but what is reality but the nonsensical delusion of a world denied of our own individual greatness?

Let James Thurber tell the tale:

"We're going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The old man will get us through" they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

"You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer." He raced the engine a little. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. "Pick it up, brother!" snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.
. . . "It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," said the pretty nurse. "Yes?" said Walter Mitty, removing his gloves slowly. "Who has the case?" "Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow, but there are two specialists here, Dr. Remington from New York and Mr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over." A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. "Hello, Mitty," he said. "We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him." "Glad to," said Mitty.

Don’t believe me he’s not quintessentially American? Read any of the comments on YouTube on this film, and you’ll see souls a-hungered.