Book Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Other Pieces by James Thurber

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I bought this book because I’m embarking on a reading challenge, which is to read a series of books that have been made into movies that I’ve already seen and thought were pretty good. Usually I find it hard to read a book if I’ve already seen the movie of it because I spend a lot of time doing comparisons. “That’s not what happened in the movie.” Or anticipating what’s about to happen. “This is the part where he gets shot.”

This is a book of James Thurber’s short stories, one of which is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. It was probably a good book to start this challenge with because the titular short story is only five pages long. It’s hard to get caught up with comparisons on such a short piece of text. In fact, apart from his name and the fact that Walter Mitty gets caught up in daydreams to alleviate the boredom of his life, there aren’t too many similarities between the short story and the movie starring Ben Stiller. But it’s a good short story.

There are some other obvious highlights in the collection. “The Catbird Seat”, a how-to guide on getting annoying colleagues fired. “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”, reinterpreting the classics of Shakespeare by looking at them as if they are crime novels. “A Ride with Olympy”, one man who speaks French poorly teaching another man who speaks even less French and no other common languages to drive a car with predictable and hilarious results. “The Kerb in the Sky”, about a woman who drives her husband mad by finishing all his sentences and correcting all his stories. And “The Greatest Man on Earth”, about the first man to fly solo around the world, who won’t accept adulation for his achievement with grace, denigrates the efforts of others who tried before him and ultimately meets a fate that many would wish on those who have no humility.

Thurber’s writing is wonderful, elegant and unhurried. His characters are fantastic and varied; we spend only as much time with each of them as we need to, as we could probably stand to before each story ends. And the plots are drawn from tiny moments and details that in anyone else’s hands might have seemed uninspiring or uninspired. But in Thurber’s, they become sophisticated windows into the lives of ordinary others.

I’m not generally a fan of short story collections because I like novels, I like getting to know characters in depth, I like plots that unwind languidly, I like themes running through chapters, I like poetic endings. But pretty much all of those things exist in this book. I really wanted to give it 3.5 stars because although subjectively I was tugged more in the direction of 3 stars because of my abovementioned preference, objectively I can recognise the 4 star worth of it.

Of course, either of these ratings show it’s not perfect. There are a lot of hen-pecked husbands, frustrating wives, miserable writers and delusional types, maybe a few too many. But there are moments of perfection. “Two is company, four is a party, three is a crowd. One is a wanderer.”

Also included in this collection are a number of short stories that were memoirs of the author’s life. I suspect reading James Thurber’s memoirs in their entirety would be like reading Roald Dahl’s. They are both just so readable.

It’s good to remember every now and then that short stories and novellas are great for movie adaptations because the length is more workable, the stories less convoluted and the plots often just as poignant. Imagine how many short stories and novellas an author could write in the same time it would take you to write one novel. Imagine how many different movies could be made from the one collection of short stories.

If you’re a short story fan, then I think you’d enjoy James Thurber’s work, even more than I did, even more than I am able to. If you’re not, limiting yourself to reading the stories I picked out above should help you to realise that Thurber was a master of this medium.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 15 January 2016

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