Monday, November 15, 2010

James Thurber

So, Keith Olbermann has been reading James Thurber aloud on the Friday episodes of Countdown. I had mixed feelings about him before he started doing this. Now I have an enormous soft spot for him. He does voices! I repeat, KEITH OLBERMANN DOES VOICES WHILE READING SHORT STORIES BY THURBER ON CABLE TELEVISION. Nothing beats that for weird, and nothing beats it for wonderful.

It was solely because of Keith Olbermann that I picked up The Thurber Carnival at a book sale a couple of months ago. I'd read "The Catbird Seat" in high school, but on account of my inability to understand why the catbird seat was a good place to be, what catbirds had to do with anything, what a catbird was anyway, I was not bowled over by my first introduction to Thurber. But, put Keith Olbermann in an overstuffed red leather chair doing voices, and I'll give anything a second chance. Which is why I've just finished The Thurber Carnival.

Here are some things I like about Thurber:

1. He is preoccupied with Robert Browning and Ambrose Bierce. This is nice because it is human to be preoccupied with things, and I like my writers to be human. I am myself am currently preoccupied with cannibalism, colonial America, and baking bread. If I were writing anything at the moment, you bet I would find a way to work these in.

2. He neither likes nor understands automobiles. I sympathize.

3. He makes me laugh out loud. So few authors can accomplish this. Before Thurber I read American's Hidden History: no laughs. Among the Cannibals: no laughs. The Year of the Flood: no laughs. A Children's Book: no laughs. This is unrealistic. Life is simply not that serious. For Pete's sake, Thurber's brother shot out his eye with an arrow when he was seven (they were playing William Tell, a poor idea) and he still turned out hilarious. No one else has any excuses.

The stories I enjoyed the most were the autobiographical ones about Thurber's family, from My Life and Hard Times. They are full of things like this brief history of his great-uncle Zenas: "A sensitive, rather poetical boy of twenty-one when the Civil War broke out, Zenas had gone to South America -- "Just," as he wrote back, "until it blows over." Returning after the war had blown over, he caught the same disease that was killing off the chestnut trees in those years, and passed away. It was the only case in history where a tree doctor had to be called to spray a person, and our family had felt it very keenly; nobody else in the United States caught the blight. Some of us looked upon Zenas' fate as a kind of poetic justice."

It was the only case in history where a tree doctor had to be called to spray a person.


He also wrote something called The Pet Department, which appears to be some kind of advice column in which those asking advice send sketches to illustrate their questions. It goes like this:

Q: We have a fish with ears and wonder if it is valuable.

A: I find no trace in the standard fish books of any fish with ears. Very likely the ears do not belong to the fish, but to some mammal. They look to me like a mammal's ears. It would be pretty hard to say what species of mammal, and almost impossible to determine what particular member of that species. They may merely be hysterical ears, in which case they will go away if you can get the fish's mind on something else.

Standard fish books. Hysterical ears.


Anyway, if you are interested, you can go here to see Keith Olbermann read "The Night the Bed Fell." It's about eight minutes long. I recommend his other readings, too, especially these (which I really wish they had simply labeled with the titles of the stories):
  • The Night the Ghost Got In, (in two parts, listed under "Reading one of Thurber's classics" and the "Fridays with Thurber continues" that's right above it)
  • The Catbird Seat,  (in two parts, listed under "An ordinary man wanting to do the extraordinary" and "Thurber Fridays: The Catbird Seat")
  • Exhibit X, (listed under "Thurber's time in the State Department")
And of course I recommend The Thurber Carnival and everything else even though I haven't read it.

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