books, Friday Recommends, things to love about Ohio

Friday Recommends: James Thurber

Women dig the funny guys.

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David Sedaris was in Cincinnati this past Sunday to read from his new book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and to make off-color jokes about Willie Nelson. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a departure from Sedaris’s prior works; it is a sort of twisted Aesop’s Fables. In “Hello Kitty,” for example, a sardonic cat (a preposterous caricature, to be sure) endures prison-mandated Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. That sort of thing.

If this strikes your fancy, we highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of Fables For Our Time by James Thurber. Thurber — born in Columbus, Ohio, and a student at Ohio State University¹, thus making him a Thing To Love About Ohio — is best known for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” one of the greatest, saddest short stories ever written (Thurber, twice married, could be quite bleak writing about battles between the sexes), as well as his work on The New Yorker.

Fables is one of his most playful and subversive works. Each fable ended with a moral; some were punchlines played for easy laughs while others cut surprisingly deep. Our personal favorite is “The Little Girl and the Wolf,” a two paragraph reimagining of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The first paragraph follows the fairy tale closely. The wolf sees a girl carrying a basket of food to her grandmother, then stakes out the grandmother’s house and awaits the girl’s arrival. Thurber’s feminine hero is a bit sharper than her traditional counterpart, however: “She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed,” he writes, “when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.”

Thurber’s moral: “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”

You can also treat yourself to The Thurber Carnival, a collection of Thurber’s work which includes selections from Fables as well as his best-known short stories and cartoons. In the preface, “My Fifty Years with James Thurber,” Thurber himself writes a typically self-deprecating sketch of his humble beginnings:

James Thurber was born on a night of wild portent and high wind in the year 1894, at 147 Parsons Avenue, Columbus, Ohio. The house, which is still standing, bears no tablet or plaque of any description, and is never pointed out to visitors. Once Thurber’s mother, walking past the place with an old lady from Fostoria, Ohio, said to her, “My son James was born in that house,” to which the old lady, who was extremely deaf, replied, “Why, on the Tuesday morning train, unless my sister is worse.” Mrs. Thurber let it go at that.

Sedaris won The Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2001 for Me Talk Pretty One Day (still his best work). Other luminaries from The Onion editorial staff to Jon Stewart to Christopher Buckley have also taken home the prize. If you think any of these people are remotely funny, treat yourself to Thurber. You’ll see a little bit of all of them in him.

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1. Thurber never graduated from OSU due to his poor eyesight. He was blind as a bat. The university awarded him a posthumous degree in 1995.
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