Grace Paley vs. Isak Dinesen

The Deal Me In Short Story Challenge draw for this week was “The Fish” by Isak Dinesen and “The Long Distance Runner” by Grace Paley.  I’ve been drawing two stories and then trying to find a way to connect them, but I’m not going to make that effort today.

What I learned from reading “The Fish” and “The Long Distance Runner” is that I don’t really like Isak Dinesen, but I love Grace Paley.  Love, love, love.

“The Fish” is from Dinesen’s collection Winter’s Tales, a collection of original fairy tales.  This one is about a prince and his story telling assistant.  The prince falls in love with a woman.  He gives her a ring.  She throws it into the sea.  A fish swallows it.  The prince finds it in his fish dinner.  There was more than that going on, but you can tell I wasn’t interested.  There’s one more story from Winter’s Tales in my current short story deck which I will read when I finally draw it, but that’s likely going to be it for Isak Dinesen’s fairy tales as far as I’m concerned.

Lucky for me there are still lots of Grace Paley cards in my short story deck.  I loved “The Long Distance Runner” almost as much as I did “An Interest In Life” last week.  “The Long Distance Runner” is about Faith, a middle-age woman with children who are just about grown.  Faith decides she to take up running as a way to see the world.

I wanted to go far and fast, not as fast as bicycles and trains, not as far as Taipei, Hingwen, paces like that…but round and round the county from the seaside to the bridges, along the old neighborhood streets a couple of times, before old age and urban renewal ended them and me.

Once she has trained enough to be in good shape, Faith says goodbye to her children, and heads for her old neighborhood.  She jogs down the street she grew up on until she gets to the apartment building where her family lived.  The setting being New York City in the 1970’s it comes as no surprise to find everyone in the old neighborhood is now black.  The condition of the neighborhood does come as a surprise to Faith this being her first experience with urban decay.

At first, her visit goes fairly well.  As a middle-aged woman with a middle-aged figure in jogging shorts Faith attracts a great deal of attention, not all of it friendly.  When things eventually go south, Faith finds shelter in her family’s old apartment, now inhabited by a single mother of two.  The two women form an uneasy alliance over the weeks Faith spends hiding in the apartment, trying to build up the courage to leave.  Both are basically afraid to go outside, the neighborhood is so bad.

That’s one heck of an imagination Grace Paley has, if you ask me.  Faith’s situation is as fantastic as anything I found in Winter’s Tales even without the presence of overt magic.  While “The Long Distance Runner” is not laugh out loud funny like most of “An Interest In Life” was, it’s still pretty funny and it’s lots of fun.  It reminded me of the John Cheever story about the man who swims through all his neighbor’s backyard pools as his nightly exercise.  Both have an eccentric main character who travels in an unusual way as a means of observing the lives of others and escaping their own lives.

So, a connection in the end, just not one related to the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.

Maybe next time.



7 thoughts on “Grace Paley vs. Isak Dinesen

  1. Grace Paley is super, let’s just take that as given.

    If the Dinesen story is like those in the somewhat earlier Seven Gothic Tales, then it is a puzzle story. There is a riddle of some sort to solve. Don’t ask me what, I ain’t read it.

  2. I can see what you mean about Dinesen. i wonder if the references you need to get the puzzle have become archaic. I think she’s a very good writer style wise, her stories, at least the more fantastical ones, just are not for me.

    Paley, on the other hand, is my new BFF.

  3. Hi James,
    I can certainly understand your fondness for Paley: “…before old age and urban renewal ended them and me” – now that’s a great line! I am more sympathetic to Dinesen, however, but that is perhaps because I am still somewhat childlike in much of my reading tastes, and fairy tales generally work for me. I think it was her “A Sailor Boy’s Tale” that was part of a prior year’s DMI for me, and I did enjoy that one quite a bit.

    I love the Cheever story you mentioned too. I blogged about it a couple years back if you’d like to see:


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