Favorite Humorous Stories

Picture1This was going to be a top ten list of my favorite humorous stories that have influenced me the most as a writer. But I got into a nasty argument with myself about which ones to include. Since I seldom win these arguments, I quickly conceded defeat. So I decided to write this instead as a series of installments, each focusing on one writer. That way I can live with myself and don’t have to choose just one story.

Where to begin? For me that’s easy. From early on I was always attracted to writers who could not only set me to convulsive laughter, but make me wonder how in the hell they did that. Thurber was one of my earliest heroes. For sheer range of wackiness and imagination he had few equals. And his stories still hold up well today.

Three of his stories immediately come to mind. I think my favorite is “The Night the Bed Fell,” from his autobiographical book My Life and Hard Times. I do think “autobiography” is a stretch when applied to these stories. It is hard to believe that anyone’s family members could be that crazy, or that events described by the author could have really happened that way. No matter. The stories are pure fun. In fact, they inspired me to write my novel The Family That Wasn’ta middle grade fantasy about a boy who finds his family so impossibly crazy that he writes them out of his life by imagining a new perfect family in which he suddenly finds himself living.

A close second is the story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” from Thurber’s later book The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. I love the way this story starts, as if everything is perfectly normal in General Grant’s camp: “The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the eastern sky.” But history is about to be turned on its head. I wonder how many people, after reading this story, have gone to the Internet seeking information about Grant’s drinking problems. It’s a perfect little gem of alternative history as only Thurber could imagine it.

And how could I not include the much-anthologized “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from the 1942 classic My WorldAnd Welcome To It. After seeing the preview for the latest movie version of this story, all I can say is, save yourself the agony and read the story instead. There’s a good reason it’s been published in so many collections. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, but it’s perfectly constructed in every detail and guaranteed to make a writer despair of ever being able to write a story like that. Now that’s a good role model! 

You can find all of these stories in the recent collection Writings and Drawings by James Thurber, with selections by Garrison Keillor, published in 1996 by Library of America. 

I’d love to hear comments on your favorite humorous stories.

Land of the Solitary Ascidian

Goose In an article on nature writing, author David Rains Wallace once wrote that “the most daunting challenge facing nature writers today is not travel but data. Someone has to translate information into feelings and visions.”

Thus inspired, I set off on a collecting trip not to some far off corner of the globe but to the musty shelves of a nearby college library. (Yes, I could have done this at home, but for the true bibliophile nothing can match the sheer adventure of wandering through towering rows of books.) There, beneath the covers of the latest science journals, I hoped to “discover” new data that I could translate for my readers.

Hacking my way through the jargon jungle of the specialists, however, I quickly came to appreciate what Wallace meant by “daunting challenge.” Right off I knew there might be trouble ahead when the first article encountered in The Biological Bulletin was entitled:“Aggregation and fusion between conspecifics of a solitary ascidian.” Suddenly I felt far more alone than any solitary ascidian. About all that I managed to ascertain from the article was that this was the first time such a thing had ever been reported, and that the frequency of fusion between contacting (and presumably consenting) specimens was 20 percent. Also, that the fused animals had their outer membranes on at the time, unlike the unfused ones (which could have considerable significance if you’re a solitary ascidian).    

Charting a new course, I proceeded along the provocative pathways of the London journal, Animal Behavior. Its author left plenty of good leads for me to follow such as: “Do digger wasps commit the Concorde fallacy?” I’ve committed a few fallacies myself, but this one sounds like one of the cardinal sins. And how could one not want to know more about: “The responses of dark-bellied brent geese to models of geese in various postures”? My mind started racing with possibilities, and I found myself wondering exactly what kinds of postures those researchers were showing the poor geese. Alas, only three positions were shown: head up, head down, and extreme head up. The last one I found extremely disturbing, though I’m not a goose. The geese, by the way, considered the head down model most attractive. I disagree.    

Another London journal, Annals of Botany, led me to a romantic sounding place with its title: “Alnus Leaf Impressions from a Postglacial Tufa in Yorkshire.” I found myself yearning to go there and sit on a nice soft tufa while soaking in the countryside.    

It was in the physical science journals that I really began to go astray. Several articles in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences sent troubling images through my brain.  What is one to make of the title: “On the Interpretation of Eddy Fluxes during a Blocking Episode”? Does this sound like football or is it just me? While the article entitled: “Improving Spectral Models by Unfolding Their Singularities” left me trying to imagine what a spectral model—especially a “maximally truncated” spectral model—might look like with its singularities unfolded.    

The visions became even worse in the Physical Review. Why, for instance, upon reading the seemingly straightforward title: “Interactions of H and H- with He and Ne” did I suddenly think of the old movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? And why did the article entitled: “Hydrogen atom in the momentum representation” leave me thinking of some weird body-building pose?    

I finally lost my way entirely in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Oh, it started off innocently enough with a “Crab Bitten by a Fish from the Upper Cretaceous Pierre Shale.” I’m sure there’s a story there, but that’s when I should have turned around. But, feeling adventurous, I went further, becoming hopelessly mired in the title: “Progressive Metamorphism from Prehnite-Pumpellyite to Greenschist Facies in the Dansey Pass Area, Otago, New Zealand.” In spite of my predicament I must admit it was a fascinating world with all kinds of lovely creatures like “Mesozoic graywackes” and “prehnite-pumpellyite facies.” For a time I even managed to keep up with the author until he suddenly went around a bend and left me all alone with: “progressive textual modification ranges from massive, nonfoliated greywacke, semi-schist, to thorough-going laminated quartzo feldspathetic schist.”

Dazed and confused, I straggled on home. I’ll leave that for some other nature writer to translate into feelings and visions.                                                                                                                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014                                                Originally appeared in 5enses March 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/land-of-the-solitary-ascidian/