Nostalgic Review: shorts edition

Ever since I started the Nostalgic Review feature, I’ve been meaning to do a post on my favorite/most-clearly-remembered short stories from grade- and high-school English classes.  Remember those awesome lit textbooks you always wished you could keep after the semester or school year ended? (What? It wasn’t just me, right? Right?)

LitTextbook1

And since a few of these stories are relatively un- or little-known, judging from the number of Goodreads ratings/reviews (or lack thereof) at the time of this post, I figure this partly counts toward the From the Bowels of Obscurity challenge.  So!

An Ode to 3rd – 11th grade English*

(in ascending order of obscurity)

An effective short story, says Elizabeth Segel, “has a concentrated, high-energy effect on the reader’s feelings.” [1]  It’s a kaleidoscope that pulls out a single moment – one “orderly, glowing pattern[ ]” – from the chaos of life. [2]

What was it about the following stories that particularly struck me?  Why did they stick to my brain while other stories passed by?  Even if I couldn’t remember the title, or the entire plot, I’d remember some image, or some feeling.  Something the protagonist did or said that made me want to pump my fist and say, “YES! YOU TELL ‘EM!”  Or made me want to cry.

Maybe it was a particular sentence – maybe it was the final sentence, the last image the writer wanted me to see, and how I’d felt about that (no spoilers, I promise.  If I really want to discuss the ending or major plot points, I’ll do so at Goodreads and include links below for those who’ve already read the story).  Or maybe the story reminds me of some situation or event that was happening at the time I read it.

Anyway!  Here we go!

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Edit Aug. 11, 2013:  I’ve re-linked the title of each story to an online full-text copy, or to the OpenLibrary.com page where you can borrow either the individual story or the anthology that includes it.  For “The Scarlet Ibis,” scroll down to where it says, just below the embedded video, “Click here for the full text…”  The story will open as a Word file.

I also added some extra thoughts on “The Scarlet Ibis,” which you can find in the second full paragraph below (not counting the title and info on Goodreads ratings).

. . . . . . . . . . . .

ScarletIbisThe Scarlet Ibis,” by James Hurst (1,954 ratings/104 reviews on Goodreadsbeware, many of the reviews contain unhidden spoilers.  Srsly, people, please use the spoiler tags or click the “hide entire review” box before posting!)

It’s hard to forget a story this hauntingly sad.  There’s not much more I can say without spoiling – just be prepared to cry.

. . . Wait, actually, I can talk about a few things.  Like the interesting use of the word “lies” to mean imaginative, fantastical stories.  It comes up when the narrator recounts all the times he and Doodle would make up wild stories during their long summer walks.  I wonder what this says about early 20th-century American attitudes toward fantasy, at least in the South?  How were “lies” considered different (and, as the narrator seems to imply, at least somewhat less socially approved) from published works of fantasy–and really wild fantasy, at that–like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, both of which would’ve been available at the time in which the story is set?  An interesting topic for further research…

I can also talk about author’s so-vivid-you-feel-like-you’re-there descriptions of the landscape.  The narrator never says exactly where he and his family live, but you can tell it’s somewhere in the South, near the sea—he mentions swamps and cotton fields, the bleeding tree, palmetto fronds, yellow jasmine, rubber grass…

This is absolutely my favorite passage:

Doodle and I often went down into Old Woman Swamp.  I would gather wildflowers, wild violets, honeysuckle, yellow jasmine, snakeflowers, and waterlilies, and with the wire grass we’d weave them into necklaces and crowns.  We’d bedeck ourselves with our handiwork and loll about thus beautified, beyond the touch of the everyday world.  Then when the slanted rays of the sun burned orange in the tops of the pines, we’d drop our jewels into the stream and watch them float away toward the sea.

It’s such an idyllic, peaceful moment when the two brothers forget all their other concerns and just play together.  There’s no shame or cruelty or pride; they’re just two brothers making flower crowns on a perfect summer day.

And finally, on a more critical note, I can mention that I think the author overdoes it a bit with the symbolism and foreshadowing.

But it’s still a beautiful, memorable story.

Aaand that’s really all I can say.

AllSummer

All Summer in a Day,” by Ray Bradbury (1,211 ratings/126 reviews).

Note: I suggest not reading the Goodreads summary if you want to get the full impact of the story; it leans a bit too far toward spoiler territory.

On Venus the sun shines for a few hours every seven years.  The rest of the time it rains.  Rains endlessly.  “[T]housands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain…” [3]

Margot is the only one in her class who remembers the sun, because she was born on Earth, and the other kids hate her for it.

This is one of the first stories to pop up in my memories of 3rd – 11th grade English.  Of course I identified with the quiet girl who was put down whenever she did share her ideas, and of course I hated those little jerkwads for how they treated her.

The last sentence was what stuck in my mind most – without spoiling anything, it’s one of those endings that feels like a cut-off, but a quiet, un-dramatic one.  Because what more is there to say?   (more @ Goodreads)

What I’d forgotten were Bradbury’s intensely tangible descriptions —

It was as if, in the midst of a film concerning an avalanche, a tornado, a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, something had, first, gone wrong with the sound apparatus, thus muffling and finally cutting off all noise, all of the blasts and repercussions and thunders, and then, second, ripped the film from the projector and inserted in its place a beautiful tropical slide which did not move or tremor. The world ground to a standstill. The silence was so immense and unbelievable that you felt your ears had been stuffed or you had lost your hearing altogether. [4]

Of course, I now also recognize some of the odder details that hadn’t passed through 12-year-old Nerija’s suspension-of-disbelief goggles.  For instance, I hadn’t picked up on the oddness of a place having such abundant plant life – let alone jungles – when it only gets a few hours’ sunshine every seven years.  Didn’t The Magic School Bus teach us that plants need air, water, and sun (in well-balanced proportions) to thrive?  Then again, Venus is 25, 717, 799 miles closer to the sun than Earth, so maybe an hour of sunshine has greater impact there.

Oh, except that life still couldn’t survive on Venus because it’s a raging death sauna with temperatures “hot enough to melt lead.” [5]  That little snot William should’ve been deep-fried the second he stepped out of the tunnels (assuming, of course, that said tunnels were themselves made to withstand the heat).  That’s if he wasn’t crushed first by the 90-times-heavier-than-Earth’s air pressure.

Now, before anyone jumps on me, this isn’t actually a criticism of the story.  I know Bradbury wrote “All Summer” years before Soviet or U.S. space probes told us what Venus was actually like, and he wasn’t even the first to imagine it as a jungle planet.  H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, for instance, described chokingly thick jungles filled with lizard-men in “In the Walls of Eryx,” published in 1936.  Before that, Edgar Rice Burroughs had shown a world with “mammoth forests” of “sky-high trees” in his Venus series.  It was only in the 60s that we learned what was really under all those clouds.

There was a short adaptation of “All Summer,” which I only recently discovered, made by the Learning Corporation of America in 1982.  I do like it even though it changes the whole tone of the story – most of the kids are actually nice to Margot, for instance (the bullying is condensed to a single kid named William).

You really have to look at it as a separate thing from the original, like someone decided to write an alternate version.

MartianChroniclesThere Will Come Soft Rains,” by Ray Bradbury (824 ratings/45 reviews)

We read this in one of my high-school English classes, and the overall sense of sad irony – the house’s cheerful AI units going through their daily routine, completely oblivious to what’s actually going on around them – is what I most remembered.  Of course we discussed how fitting the Sara Teasdale poem was to the story’s overall theme, but it’s only now that I realize the irony of it being Mrs. McClellan’s favorite poem.

You can see what I mean without having read the longer story into which “Soft Rains” fits – Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  Like some of the Chronicles’ other chapters, it stands well on its own.  But I definitely do recommend the entire collection.  The stories are sometimes eerily beautiful, often sad, and sometimes really chilling, and the whole thing makes you just a little more optimistic about the world as it actually is in the early 21st century (most of the stories take place between 2000 and 2005).  Of course, the last stories take place in 2026, so there’s still time to screw things up…

More thoughts on The Martian Chronicles here.

2041AD

Lose Now, Pay Later,” by Carol Farley (0 ratings/reviews for the story itself, but 92 ratings/10 reviews for the anthology in which it originally appeared)

Here and there on Q&A forums – Yahoo Answers, Whatsthatbook.com, etc. – you’ll see someone asking for the title of that one story they remember from school…the one with the weird candy or something that makes you gain lots of weight, and then the machine that magically takes it away.

I didn’t remember the title either until I Googled [spoilery search terms], and it isn’t even the weirdest story I’ve read, but it was just weird enough.  And the final lines had such a neat combination of cheerful tone/imagery and eerie implications.

Now the tricky part.  My library system does have a copy of 2041, but dang it I said I wouldn’t buy or borrow any more books until IfinishALLthebooks

I’d already borrowed (before starting said moratorium) all the other books I needed, and it would be a waste to have to return them unused, right? Right?  So… I downloaded an old lit textbook from OpenLibrary.org.  But that’s it from now on, for reals!

LitTextbook2

Anyway, Swoodies.

One day there’s a weird new shop at the mall.  It’s just an unsupervised room full of vending machines…that offer FREE ICE CREAM.  And this is no ordinary ice cream, ooohhh no.  This is the best soft serve you’ve ever had in your WHOLE. LIFE.

Day after day, the shop is still there, still unsupervised, and the Swoodies are still free… and just when you realize how much weight you’ve gained, a new machine appears in the parking lot, claiming to make all those pounds disappear.

A classic case of Too Good To Be True, right?  . . . Right?

More @ Goodreads.

P.S.  I can’t believe I didn’t remember the name Trinja.  As soon as I saw it, I could hear the echoes of some sixth- or seventh-grade boys snickering, “Trinja?”  I, for one, thought it was a cool name.

NadiaTheWillfulNadia the Willful,” by Sue Alexander (22 ratings/5 reviews)

Speaking of names, when my sixth-grade class read this story, I briefly acquired the title nickname because, I mean, it’s sooo similar to mine!  I’ve known people who called me “Nadia” even before we read the story; guess they figured it was close enough.  (correct pronunciation = N-eddie-yuh)  At least it was better than “Nerdy-a” (I can still hear those stupid kids on the bus when I was in third or fourth grade, chanting “NERDY-YA! NERDY-YA!” as I raced to catch up because the stupid bus was always scheduled to leave about five minutes before my last class ended…)

As for “Nadia the Willful,” I actually didn’t mind that.  It was nice to be associated with a more confident character who stood her ground when it was most important.

Admittedly, Nadia’s “willfulness” at the beginning is more like a tendency toward temper tantrums.  Only her favorite brother, Hamed, could calm her down and make her laugh.  And then, one day, Hamed is gone.  Nadia’s rage frightens her neighbors, but worse is her father, the sheik’s, decree that no one must ever say his son’s name again.  How can Nadia deal with her own grief if she is not even allowed to talk about it?

It’s a good folktale-style story about the power of memory as a way of keeping our loved ones close even after they’re physically gone.

P.S.  The award for most clever on-purpose mispronunciation of my name goes to Chad, the new kid in 6th or 7th grade, who once called me “Nigeria.” **ThousandPailsOfWater

A Thousand Pails of Water,” by Ronald Roy (7 ratings/1 review)

Yukio feels bad for the whales his father and neighbors hunt.  But to the community, hunting is a necessary way of life.  One day Yukio goes to the sea alone, and there he sees a whale brought in by the tide, now trapped between the rocks on shore.  He wants to help, but what can a small boy do alone?

It’s a sweet story with a simple message about doing what one can, even if it seems too small at first.  And I like that it shows how people can balance between treating nature as materially useful and appreciating it for its own sake.  Though, it does seem like the author’s bias—Roy is “[a]n ardent conservationist” [6] —tips the story more toward the latter.

The only arguments in favor of hunting are that it’s all Yukio’s father knows, and that it’s what he “must do.”  Most of the story focuses on Yukio’s point of view, which is entirely against hunting.

ShortTakesTuesday of the Other June,” by Norma Fox Mazer (0 ratings/reviews)

I’ve always liked the name June, of course, since it’s my birthday month 🙂

June’s mother always tells her to “be good” and stay out of fights – “People can be little-hearted, but turn the other cheek, smile at the world, and the world’ll surely smile back.” [7]  So June tries to ignore the mean girl—also named June, wouldn’t you know it—in her swim class.  Only June-the-bully doesn’t stop.  The pinching and taunting and pushing and name-calling go on and on and on, every Tuesday.  And just when June thinks she’ll be free, she gets an awful surprise.

It’s a story about having to choose between what you’re told is the right thing to do, and what you really feel is right.  Because sometimes the world doesn’t smile back.

The other stories in Short Takes also focus on moments of self-realization.  Moments when you suddenly discover your own values, which may or may not agree with your friends’ or family’s.  And if your values do conflict with someone else’s, you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit that person’s expectations or to keep following your own separate way – only, the result isn’t always as decisive or satisfying as in “Tuesday of the Other June.”

__________________________

* Third grade is the earliest I can remember using those anthologies, and 11th is the last year I could picture having read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” since senior-year English focused on British writers.

** Get it? ‘Cause his name’s Chad? 😉


[1] Elizabeth Segel, ed.  Introduction to Short Takes: a Short Story Collection For Young Readers.  New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1986.  Pgs vii-viii.

[2] Pg. viii.

[3] Ray Bradbury.  “All Summer in a Day.”  Independence High School English Department.  PDF.  Pg 1.

[4] Bradbury.  Pg 3.

[5] Dr. Tony Phillips.  “Blazing Venus.”  Science@Nasa.  February 20, 2001.  Retrieved August 8, 2013.

[6] Ronald Roy.  A Thousand Pails of Water.  Illus. Vo-Dinh Mai.  New York: Knopf, 1978.  Author bio at the end of the book.

[7] Norma Fox Mazer.  “Tuesday of the Other June.”  Short Takes.  Pg 3.

This entry was posted in family, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, nostalgic, picture books, re-reads, school reads, short stories. Bookmark the permalink.

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