Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 17th: Mary Lerner
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Another day, another story from The Best American Short Stories of the Century ed. by John Updike. Like anyone else who would embark upon reading stories from this volume in order (with the ambition to read, yes, the whole thing), I think part of the fun is seeing the progression of time and culture through the century along with, perhaps, progression of writing style from the so-called "traditional" right on through the so-called "modern" and "post-modern." Those terms and whatever familiarity/bizarreness they evoke aren't as important as the point that it's fun to embark upon projects that let you see the chronological march of things, whether those things are cinematic, like watching all the Best Picture Oscar winners, or historical, like reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project obviously conceived of and named during the Dubya "administration"), or literary, like this project and, ahem, maybe a few others. (I never met a reading project I couldn't invent for myself! Or, er, uh...something like that.)

Today's Story: "Little Selves"
Author: Mary Lerner

My Rating: A-

We're still in the 1910s, this being only the second story in said Best...Century volume, and so after yesterday's Russian Jewish immigrant man Zelig, we have today's Irish Catholic immigrant woman Margaret O'Brien, who looks back at the end of her life on all the little selves, i.e., past versions of her, that made up her life: herself at age four, herself at age ten, and so on. Because early 1900s = immigration! "That's what made this country great! Then, anyway!" and so on.

Today's immigrant isn't quite as distraught with the New World and her total lifetime achievements as yesterday's seemed to be, but I should probably stop comparing them--now that they have appeared together as the first two stories in this collection, I think they're getting more comparison than they ever did in the first eighty years of their existence. (If they were compared at all!)

Little is known about the author, Mary Lerner. (Research project, anyone?) Was she a die-hard Catholic? Did she miss the old country? Was she unmarried and childless, like Margaret O'Brien, or weary with marriage and children, like the niece? Or are these two selves both aspects of Lerner's self, and are the married and unmarried little selves each intact aspects of every woman's self--although married, the person who she was before she ever knew this guy is still there?

That's the point of "Little Selves." She is sad about dying only because she worries that it means forever the end of these selves that made up her past. Who will remember them now that she's gone? So she sits around endlessly replaying the story of her life in her head, to revisit each of the selves. It's not an orderly procession of ghost-memories, but we go back and forth between past and present, and little supernatural bits of whimsy are evoked when she thinks back to Ireland childhood, namely leprechauns and fairies, although each parent who tells her about them is doing so with a knowing wink-wink, like parents do with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and like they should be doing when they talk about Jesus, Adam & Eve, etc.

Basically, a solid short story with an interesting point and some decent profound thoughts, if a little heavy on the nature imagery that seems like it's there just to show how well the author can describe nature rather than for any real purpose. (I really hope creative writing classes aren't still encouraging this.)

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