Tag Archives: Dorothy Parker

Am I ignorant? Dim? Or why can’t I enjoy prize-winning books?


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heaven

I read. A lot. I have authors I love, I have ones I can’t dig through. Colm Toibin is impenetrable. Jane Urquhart makes me want to weep, and not in a good way. Even Tom Hardy gets into the story faster than these two. I need a long time in the quiet of a soundproofed cabin with lots of wine, a self-maintaining fire, and an IV infusion so I never hunger just to focus on their stories.

I am often reminded of the wail of the actor in “the Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare, abridged” when asked to perform Hamlet in the second half. “So many WORDS!”

I’m reading an award-winning book right now (author’s name withheld) and I can barely stand it. I can’t keep track of the story because of all the words blowing through the pages like gently frost-enclosed leaves from the mountain that existed behind my house and that we walked every seventh day when the sun climbed into the sky like a weak thing only to brighten to shimmering coin gold by the time we reached the windy granite-strewn rounded summit and turned, gardenia-like, to face it.

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kindergarten rules

I understand the desire for concrete descriptors. Showing instead of telling, yes, I get it. Saying something is nice doesn’t cut it.

But I can’t help but think that describing a cup in all of its form cuts it, either, especially if it happens with every &*&(^^ object in the story and every time the object or person reappears, it is described differently, by new and extended names or nicknames, or a novel piece of backstory that rumbles on for paragraphs.

Don’t authors know we read these things before bed???

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now find the little man on the sixth level…

 

This book that I’m reading has so much description it has the effect of distancing me from involvement. I feel as if I am looking down at a very confusing miniature trainset where the tracks frequently move, trains vanish or change appearance every few pages, and that somehow I am going to be tested on remembering the schedules of each one.

As someone who attempts to write, I’ve taken more classes than I care to remember that emphasized the need to be simple. To put the story forward, to involve the reader, to create empathy with the characters. It’s almost impossible to care one whit about these characters, smothered as they are in the fluffy cotton and silk and ribbons and wool and paper corsages and tiny hidden diaries and bits of recipes and hints of music and some offal. And yet, the story could be fascinating. I WANT to read it. I want to know about the things that happen, but characters disappear and pages are spent wafting about some past encounter. Time changes; half is in memory, half is in distant past, half is in present.

Yes, I know that equals more than one.

I feel buffeted by time zones, tossed about like a Caesar salad and as lost as a fallen sales receipt from that little craft store on the corner just up past the schoolyard that I go to with my aunt Mary, who never likes the crafts but knows the owner’s mother, on the blue-green silk sea of descriptors.

I have to take breaks from reading this book, because the urge to throw it becomes too strong. I feel a bit like Dorothy Parker:

I’m much better now, in fact, than I was when we started. I wish you could have heard that pretty crash “Beauty and the Beast” made when, with one sweeping, liquid gesture, I tossed it out of my twelfth-story window.

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not Bendicks

(I have skipped any reference to throwing books at cats (of which there are many) as Bendicks is watching and will stomp on my keyboard when I’m not looking and readjust my investments.)

The thing is, I feel like a failure. I continually read award-winning books and am so often frustrated by them. I must be lacking something.

There are exceptions. Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs was wonderful, miraculous, and a real treasure. I WALLOWED in it. Anakana Shofield’s Martin John was intensely interesting and gripping. And those two are from the 2016 Giller List.

So you see, I can read. I can decipher difficult texts. So why, oh why, can’t I find the gold in some of these gems?

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the risk of reading big books

Sigh. Time for a good mystery or thriller to cleanse the palate and the brain. Or maybe some Proust. With madeleines.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.[5]

 

“I don’t read fiction”


images “I only read non-fiction”, some people say, as if there was only truth in history or political analysis or science. They refuse to waste their time on fiction. More’s the pity, for that’s where truth REALLY hangs out.

I’m reading the wonderful stories of Dorothy Parker and I have to say her understanding shines brighter, sharper, and stronger than any non-fiction book about relationships or human behaviour or the story of societies. Stronger than Alice Munro’s tales but often in the same area of what others tend to put down as woman’s stories (argh!), her message comes at you with like a thunderbolt, leaving you gasping as the realization of what she has done hits. I simply don’t understand why Parker is often described solely as the quick witted riposte queen, when she was obviously a writing powerhouse and always has been.

The story “Mr. Durant” is such a blast. She tells the story of a self-centred man in tones of such casual damning it’s not until you get to the last paragraphs that you realize how horrid he truly is. He is married, with two children, a wife he calls Mummy.

He has an affair. She gets pregnant, he insists upon and pays for an abortion. He is completely blind why she would want never to work with him again. Rather he thinks this is perfect, all tidied up, as it were. He won’t even have to run into her and suffer any embarrassment at work. He heads home, smug in his ability to put things away.

The children find a lost and starving puppy, and at first he is finally persuaded to keep it.

Until he learns it is a girl.

“Into his den, Mr. Durant preceded his wife, and faced her, still frowning. His calm was not shattered, but it was punctured….

“Now, you know perfectly well, Fran, we can’t have that dog around,” he told her. He used the low voice reserved for underwear and bathroom articles and kindred shady objects. There was kindness in his tones that one has for a backward child, but Gibraltar-like firmness was behind it. “You must be crazy to even think for a minute. Why, I wouldn’t give a she-dog houseroom, not for any amount of money. It’s disgusting, that’s what it is.”

…”Disgusting,” he repeated. “You have a female around, and you know what happens. All the males in the neighbourhood will be running after her. First thing you know, she’ll be having puppies – and the way they look after them and all!…I should think you’d think of the children, Fran. No sir, they’ll be nothing like that around here, not while I know it. Disgusting!”

He sends the dog away when the children are sleeping, so he never has to break a promise (he promised they could keep it) – “I’ve never broken a promise yet, have I?” he asks in his banally awful way.

“Again his mind wrapped itself in the knowledge that everything was fixed, all ready for a nice fresh start.”

Don’t you just want to slap this man senseless? This one nine-page story manages to install the kind of hatred for a man that makes you think of violence, everything from the being called “Daddy” by his wife, to his self-explanations for horrid behaviour, to his pride in “keeping promises” while laying waste to all the hearts around him.

And don’t you know people that are like this? Egad. Makes my skin crawl, but yes, I do.

Read all of Dorothy Parker’s stories. You won’t regret it, but you might need a drink afterwards. As for me, I have a new/old mentor. It will be fun trying to emulate her…

Ref: Dorothy Parker: Complete Stories, Colleen Breese, ed. Excellent forward by Regina Barreca. Penguin Books 2003