Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Last Call for the Deal Me In Giveaway!

It's New Year's Eve, and tomorrow begins my foray into my Deal Me In 2015 roster. (It's already secretly assembled, but I'm keeping it under wraps until tomorrow.)

HOWEVER, there is still time to enter the giveaway before midnight CST tonight! Visit the original post here and leave a comment recommending stories for me to read from the four Best American Short Story volumes I chose for this year. You could win a $25 Amazon gift card!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor

Deal Me In Lite, Week 26: "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor

Here we are in the last week of my personal permutation of the Deal Me In method of short-story reading (a la Jay at Bibliophilopolis). When I started this half-year project, I had no idea that I could actually make it to the end successfully. I am not known for my finishing power on long-term projects like this. However, I am happy to report that this time was different, and I am raring to go with a full-year version of Deal Me In -- my preparations (and a GIVEAWAY) can be found here, and I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already, and ENTER THE GIVEAWAY. The more the merrier!

So for week 26, I drew the 5 of diamonds, which led me to my last story from Growing Up in the South -- a classic story from one of the High Priestesses of the American Short Story, Flannery O'Connor.

So here's a brief synopsis of this story, in case you are unfamiliar with it:

Julian takes his mother downtown on the bus every Wednesday to attend a diet class at the Y. He doesn't do this willingly, however, and he actually turns out to be something of a martyr about it, which O'Connor expertly characterizes with the language and imagery she chooses:

She was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her hat, while he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.

Julian is one of those people who is "glad to be unhappy," and he makes sure everyone around him knows that he's unhappy, and that he is much more intelligent and sophisticated than everyone else. In the process, however, he ends up being quite the you-know-what. Yes, his mother is on the simple side, and a racist (although Julian is one as well, as it turns out, just in a different way) -- however, Julian seems to take a special pleasure in trying to humiliate his mother throughout the story.

In the story, Julian and his mother get on the bus and have interactions with a variety of people, including a well-dressed black man who gets on and whom Julian tries to engage in conversation, just to poke fun at his mother's uncomfortableness with the situation. Things come to a head (or converge???) when a large black woman and a small black boy get on the bus. Ironically, the woman is wearing a hideous hat that is identical to the one that Julian's mother is wearing. Things become more and more tense as Julian's mother tries to engage the little boy in a game of peek-a-boo, but the black woman will have none of this.

They all happen to get off at the same stop, and Julian knows what is going to happen next: his mother is going to give the little boy a nickel. She can't find a nickel, however, and offers him a penny. This provokes the black woman to lash out at Julian's mother and things pretty much spiral out of control at that point.

Flannery herself.

I love Flannery O'Connor's writing for many reasons. First, because of her unique take on Southern Gothic -- I suppose, in many ways, she did as much as anyone else to bring it to full flower. Also, her stories are so multi-layered and rich with meaning that one can read them over and over again and never really exhaust them.

I've never thought her stories were that easy to understand, however -- I enjoy them but they do take some work. This was my first time reading "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and I don't think it's my favorite O'Connor story. That honor would probably go to "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," I think. But this story is well worth the read.

And with that, I will say farewell to Deal Me In (Lite) 2014. It has been fun seeing and commenting on all the stories that other participants have read, and I have enjoyed reading others' comments on my stories. Next year should be bigger and better -- and in my case, TWICE as good as this year!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 22-24

Here we are in the home stretch of the Advent Calendar of Stories project. And while I'm at it, I would like to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Day 22: "Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle" by Frank Sullivan
When Mr. Clement Teagle leaves his apartment on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to do his Christmas shopping for his wife, he remembers that he hasn't gotten any money to give the doorman and the elevator operator of his apartment building. So he requests some additional new crisp bills while at the bank to give them, and he is shocked when the teller tears up his check after handing him the cash. It seems that Mr. Teagle has been the ideal depositor, and the bank wants to show its admiration for him with a gift of $100 (the amount of his check). Of course, Mr. Teagle is flabbergasted, but it only gets worse, as everyone he meets the rest of the day wants to give him a gift, just out of the blue. Although this is an absurd little story, I found it enjoyable.

Day 23: "What Love Can Do" by Louisa May Alcott
Dolly and Grace are two young girls who live in a boarding house with their mother and younger siblings. Their father is dead, so they and their mother have to work at menial jobs just to make ends barely meet. Even so, the two sisters have saved up enough money to buy a tiny tree and a few presents for their siblings, but of course there is nothing left over for them, and they expect nothing from their mother. So on Christmas Eve they lie in bed and talk longingly about the Christmas they would like to have. They are overheard by one of the other residents of the boarding house, and soon the love and good deeds start to spread, culminating in a Christmas beyond the girls' wildest dreams.

This is a sweet little story (as one might expect, given the author) that was previously unknown to me. However, I think that it's now one of my favorite new Christmas stories. I read this story out of a special edition of Christmas stories by Louisa May Alcott, published this year by Penguin Books as part of their "Christmas Classics" series. These are beautiful, small books that are a joy to hold in the hand. I recommend them AND this story highly!

Day 24: "The Other Wise Man" by Henry Van Dyke
A classic and wonderful story about Artaban, the fourth wise man (in Van Dyke's mythology) who sets out to find the newborn King, along with his better-known colleagues, but who can never catch up with them or find the King. Owing to a series of "chance" encounters with individuals who need his help, he's always a day late and a dollar short as far as his quest for Jesus is concerned. But in the end, he finds out that he has been seeing Him all along, and his quest ends unexpectedly but successfully. You can find this story online, and it's well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 13-21

I'm still marching along with my Advent Calendar of Stories project. I am truly enjoying this! I will say, however, that writing short blurbs about stories like I am doing is ALMOST as involved as writing full reviews. Still, it is a fun process.

Day 13: “Old Folks’ Christmas” by Ring Lardner
I have one word for this story: DEPRESSING. Tom and Grace Carter have two children, Tom Junior and Grace. But the children have changed their names to Ted and Caroline and this is what they insist on being called. This information is related in the first paragraphs of the story, and it’s an indicator of what is to come. Ted and Caroline are ungrateful wretches, and they manage to make Christmas miserable for their parents. I hope Mr. Lardner did not mean this story to be humorous, because it just made me sad. And mad. As Shakespeare wisely said via King Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

Day 14: "Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N and the Magi" by Leo Rosten
Mr. Hyman Kaplan is an immigrant and a member of a ESL class in New York, and in this story he is also part of a committee to buy a Christmas present for their teacher, Mr. Parkhill. Parkhill has been on the receiving end of many of these presents from his students, and the presentation of the gift is one he always dreads. But Mr. Kaplan’s involvement makes this year’s presentation a little different. This is a genuinely funny story, and I was glad to discover that Rosten wrote a whole series of Mr. Kaplan stories, all of which were originally published under a pseudonym in The New Yorker. I’ll be looking for some more of these.

Day 15: "The Burglar's Christmas" by Willa Cather
Willie is a shabby, down-and-out man who is led towards theft on Christmas Eve. He enters a house, intending to make off with some jewelry or anything else he can steal, and it turns out that he has stumbled into the house where his mother and father live. (It’s not the house he grew up in, so that’s how Cather can get away with this little bit of contrivance in the plot.) Willie is the long-lost lamb returned to the fold, and his mother and father end up forgiving him all his youthful indiscretions that led him away from them in the first place. I’m afraid I have made this story sound tremendously trite and maudlin, but I promise you it’s well worth the reading, especially if you like Cather. It’s available online if you’d like to read it.

An illustration from the original publication of Cather's story

Day 16: "I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus" by George Baxt
Oscar Leigh is the son of Desiree Leigh, the owner of the Desiree cosmetics empire. She supposedly received the rights to the formula for the Desiree Rejuvenating Lotion as a Christmas gift from her boss, one Professor Tester. But Oscar doesn't remember it quite that way -- he remembers Professor Tester dressed up as Santa Claus, confronting his mother with her theft of his formula, and his mother shooting the professor with a gun which was never recovered. But the turkey and stuffing tasted really strange at the Christmas Day meal later on...

Day 17: "The Tree That Didn't Get Trimmed" by Christopher Morley
What is it about Christmas that makes us want to anthropomorphize everything, from nutcrackers and mice to candy and Christmas trees? I have no idea. But that’s what happens in this story -- a simple but affecting story about a scraggly tree that was cut down too early and then no one wanted it for a Christmas tree. Do you know what happens to the Christmas trees nobody wants? The answer presented in this story was interesting, and it turned what could have been an outrageously sappy story into a pretty good tale.

This scraggly tree got trimmed. Lucky, lucky tree...

Day 18: "Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas" by John Mortimer
Rumpole is a British lawyer and probably the most famous of John Mortimer’s characters (along with Rumpole’s wife Hilda, AKA “She Who Must Be Obeyed”). I have never read any other Rumpole stories, but this one was good. Rumpole is given the task of defending Eddie Timson, of the Timson clan, who is charged with the murder of a man who belongs to the O’Dowd clan that lives in the same apartment building. (Think Hatfields and McCoys, and you’ll understand the relationship between these two families.) Rumpole pleads with the prosecutor, Wrigglesworth, to give him the Christmas present of not pursuing the prosecution of young Timson. This is a short, simple story, and not really much of a mystery, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

Day 19: "At Christmas Time" by Anton Chekhov
This was a pretty unsatisfying story, and it’s probably because I missed quite a bit of the underlying story behind the narrative. Peter and Vasilissa are elderly peasants whose daughter Efimia got married and moved away many years ago. They never hear from her, although they have written to her often. The story takes place as they are undertaking to write her another letter (using the talents of a local who is actually able to write) but this time we get to see what happens on the other end as Efimia receives the letter and “interprets” it. It’s available online if you’d like to puzzle it out for yourself.

Day 20: "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum
Baum is, of course, best known as the author of The Wizard of Oz (and several other Oz books to boot). I was unfamiliar with this story but it was pretty good. Santa Claus is kidnapped by the five Demons of the Caves (the Demons of Selfishness, Envy, Hatred, Malice, and Repentance) because his gifts and kindness keep people away from their caves and they are getting lonely. With Santa Claus gone, his helpers have to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve as best they can. This was an interesting story (albeit just a teensy bit reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas) and well worth the read. It’s available online as well.

Day 21: "The Plot Against Santa Claus" by James Powell
This story reminded me in many ways of the novel The Fat Man, which I read a few weeks ago. But it's nowhere near as entertaining or interesting as that novel. For one thing, it was so long that my interest in it petered out long before the end of the story. And there were way too many characters in the story -- so many that it got more and more irritating as new characters popped up, only to get a one- or two-sentence cutesy description. The whole story is supposed to be a hard-boiled take on disgruntled elves and plots to do away with Santa. But it just didn't work for me. I skimmed through to the ending to see if I would like it by then, and I didn't.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plans for Deal Me In 2015 and a Giveaway

2015 is a notable year in the world of the American short story. 100 years ago, in 1915, Edward O'Brien began the annual Best American Short Stories (BASS) collection. This collection (which, interestingly enough, was not published in a book, but was serialized in a magazine in its first year of existence) was O'Brien's attempt to encourage American authors to "raise the stakes," as it were, on their stories and make them more literary in nature. Looking back over the past 100 years of the American short story, I'd say the seed he planted has blossomed into full fruit.

An early advertisement for the series

I was unaware of the antiquity of this treasure trove of stories and its history until recently. I know that the Best American Short Stories of the Century volume (edited in part by John Updike) showcases the best of the best from the past 100 years, but that got me to wondering -- if they are ALL the best, then undoubtedly there are more gems to be discovered. So I have decided to make my Deal Me In selections for 2015 all from volumes of BASS, in honor of the series' centenary.

And before I get started, I want to give a shout-out to Jakon Hays' highly interesting blog Years of the B.A.S.S. -- you need to check it out and marvel at his project to read his way through the entire century of collections. It was his blog in part that gave me the inspiration for my 2015 Deal Me In roster sourcing.

AND, while I am giving credit where credit is due, the whole Deal Me In extravaganza is cheerfully led by Jay at Bibliophilopolis -- correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is his fifth year of being the Deal Me In ringleader. (That makes it sound like some kind of crime syndicate -- but we're innocent, copper!! Honest!) Here is Jay's sign-up post for the 2015 challenge.

The four suits of the deck will correspond to The Best American Short Stories collections from the following years (with my corresponding life events):

Spades, 1964: the auspicious year of my birth (no significance to the choice of suit here; it was merely the one left over after I assigned the other three);
Clubs, 1986: the year I graduated from college (you join lots of clubs in college, right??);
Hearts, 1989: the year I was married (obvious connection to the suit here);
Diamonds, 1994: the year I finished my Ph.D. and got my first "real" job (finally making MONEY!! and another obvious connection to the suit)

There are probably other years I could have chosen, but these seemed to rise to the top of the list, and they are spaced out enough that I think they will give me a good flavor of how short stories may have changed throughout the course of my life.

None of these volumes are in print any longer, nor are they easily accessible electronically, as far as I can figure out. But I was able to find good quality used copies via the various sellers on Amazon. Let's take a look at what I bought (all four for less than $20, including shipping):


Here's 1964 -- I was shocked that this was a "regular" paperback, but after all, the modern editions are in the so-called "trade paperback" format, which was unknown in 1964. And it was 75 cents a copy, which is unknown today.

The contents of the 1964 volume:
“The broomstick on the porch” by Frieda Arkin
“Mr. Iscariot” by Richard G. Brown
“To a tenor dying old” by John Stewart Carter
“A story of love, etc.” by Daniel Curley
“The woman across the street” by May Dikeman
“A long day's dying” by William Eastlake
“Figure over the town” by William Goyen
“Black snowflakes” by Paul Horgan
“The pump” by William Humphrey
“Birthday party” by Shirley Jackson
“The power” by Edith Konecky
“Mule no. 095” by Kimon Lolos
“The German refugee” by Bernard Malamud
“Sucker” by Carson McCullers
“Simple arithmetic” by Virginia Moriconi
“Upon the sweeping flood” by Joyce Carol Oates
“The names and faces of heroes” by Reynolds Price
“Waiting for Jim” by Vera Randal
“A story for Teddy” by Harvey Swados
“Have you seen Sukie?” by Robert Penn Warren


And 1986:

The contents of the 1986 volume:
"Basil from Her Garden" by Donald Barthelme
"Gryphon" by Charles Baxter
"Janus" by Ann Beattie
"The Convict" by James Lee Burke
"Star Food" by Ethan Canin
"Gossip" by Frank Conroy
"Communist" by Richard Ford
"Bad Company" by Tess Gallagher
"Today Will Be a Quiet Day" by Amy Hempel
"Doe Season" by David Michael Kaplan
"Three Thousand Dollars" by David Lipsky
"Sportsmen" by Thomas McGuane
"All My Relations" by Christopher McIlroy
"Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux" by Alice Munro
"Skin Angels" by Jessica Neely
"Invisible Life" by Kent Nelson
"Telling" by Grace Paley
"Lawns" by Mona Simpson
"Health" by Joy Williams
"The Rich Brother" by Tobias Wolff


And 1989:

The contents of the 1989 volume:
“Fenstad's Mother” by Charles Baxter
“Customs of the country” by Madison Smartt Bell
“Living to be a hundred” by Robert Boswell
“The black hand girl” by Blanche McCrary Boyd
“Kubuku Riders (This is it)” by Larry Brown
“Ralph the Duck” by Frederick Busch
“White angel” by Michael Cunningham
“The Flowers of boredom” by Rick DeMarinis
“Edie: a life” by Harriet Doerr
“The concert party” by Mavis Gallant
“Why I decide to kill myself and other jokes” by Douglas Glover
“Disneyland” by Barbara Gowdy
“Aunt Moon's young man” by Linda Hogan
“Displacement” by David Wong Louie
“The management of grief” by Bharati Mukherjee
“Meneseteung” by Alice Munro
“What men love for” by Dale Ray Phillips
“Strays” by Mark Richard
“The boy on the train” by Arthur Robinson
“The letter writer” by M.T. Sharif


And 1994:

The contents of the 1994 volume:
"This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie
"Hammam" by Carol Anshaw
"Samel" by Robert Olen Butler
"Pipa's Story" by Lan Samantha Chang
"Where I Work" by Ann Cummings
"In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark
"We Didn't" by Stuart Dybek
"The Prophet from Jupiter" by Tony Earley
"Proper Library" by Carolyn Ferrell
"The Voyage Out" by John Rolfe Gardiner
"The Mail Lady" by David Gates
"Nicodemus Bluff" by Barry Hannah
"Cold Snap" by Thom Jones
“The Chasm" by John Keeble
"Landscape and Dream" by Nancy Krusoe
"Fur” by Laura Glen Louis
"Melungeons" by Chris Offutt
"Mr. Sumarsono" by Roxana Robinson
"Battling Against Castro" by Jim Shepard
"Things Left Undone" by Christopher Tilghman
"From Shanghai" by Jonathan Wilson


So now, let's talk about a giveaway. I love blog giveaways although I rarely win them. Hopefully you do too. But more importantly, I hope you think this is a pretty interesting reading plan for 2015, and I hope you would like to help me out with some choices.

Here's the deal: I already have quite a few ideas about which stories to pick from each year's anthology, but to be honest, my choices are made on the basis of: an interesting title, or the author's reputation (neither of which may have anything to do with how good a particular story will be, even though these ARE supposed to be the "best"). Thus, I figure my blog readers can help out immensely here, in giving me suggestions of not-to-be-missed stories from these volumes.

Sound good? OK, then -- here's the giveaway rules.
  1. Leave a comment below telling me at least ONE story you think I should read from EACH volume. This entire comment will count as one entry.
  2. If you suggest more than one story from each volume, I will count your comment again in a second entry.
  3. If you help me publicize the giveaway on your blog or Twitter feed, this will count as a third entry. Of course, you will need to provide some kind of proof that you have done this. If necessary, you can send screenshots, links, or whatever kind of proof is appropriate to "randallkharris AT 'gee-mail' DOT...." (you know the rest).
I will keep track of all the entries and put them in a big (digital) hat. Then I will use a random number generator to pick the winner, who will receive a $25 Amazon gift card. That is, the winner will receive a gift card IF I am provided with a way to get in touch with him or her. The winner will be given a reasonable amount of time to respond to his or her win, and then if I am not provided with contact information, the rest of the entries will go back in the hat and we'll try again. I'll lather, rinse, and repeat until I find a communicative winner.

The deadline for all entries, for obvious reasons, will be midnight CST on December 31, 2014. I'll announce a winner on New Year's Day 2015 (as well as my finalized Deal Me In roster of stories).

I hope I get lots of suggestions and that we all have fun helping to put my roster together. Let's go!!

"The Bris" by Eileen Pollack

Deal Me In Lite, Week 25: “The Bris” by Eileen Pollack

This week the six of clubs led me to a captivating story from The Best American Short Stories 2007. It's a story of deception and loyalty, of a son’s unwilling but dedicated crusade to honor his father’s dying wishes when no one else will. This is a very long story but I found it easy to read -- it pulls the reader along nicely to a climax that is both predictable and surprising at the same time.

Marcus Sloan's father is dying of liver failure in Boca Raton, Florida. Marcus travels to be with him in his last days, and it is then that his father lays a bombshell on him. Marcus' father, who married into a Jewish family and whom everyone has assumed was Jewish, and who has brought Marcus up as a Jewish boy... is not Jewish.

He's worried about this now because he wants more than anything in the world to be buried next to Marcus' mother in the Jewish cemetery, but there's the little issue (no pun intended) of not being circumcised, which of course marks him as a non-Jew. He recruits Marcus (initially unwillingly) in his crusade to now be circumcised before death, in a last-ditch effort to become a real Jew. The only problem is, no one is willing to help in this process, feeling that it is the height of hypocrisy for his father to want this. Marcus resents the attitude of the rabbi and others unwilling to help his father, because no one could ever have been more "Jewish" than his father was -- except for the procedure he was never able to bring himself to have done.

The entire story is that of Marcus' quest to help his father achieve his goal, so there's not much to tell (or spoil) beyond that in terms of plot. However, this is one of the best stories I have read this year because Pollack beautifully portrays Marcus' conflicting emotions as a son who is forced to confront his feelings for his father and his father's sacrifices through the years, as well as his obligations to his father in his last days. I highly recommend this story if you haven't read it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 6-12

Another report from the Advent Calendar of Stories project I am working my way through, between now and Christmas.

Day 6: "Christmas Party" by Martin Werner
Charlie Evanston works for French and Saunders, a New York advertising firm known for its high-dollar accounts and glitzy, lavish Christmas parties. Charlie is put in charge of this year's Christmas party, which is to be held in the unfinished office building to which the firm is moving after Christmas. Just before the party, however, the firm inexplicably loses several major accounts, and Charlie is laid off. The Christmas party is to go on as scheduled, however, so Charlie in revenge hatches a plot to stage an "accident" for his boss at the Christmas party. Of course, we all know about the best laid plans...

Day 7: “The Spy and the Christmas Cipher” by Edward D. Hoch
British Intelligence learns that Ivan St. Ives, a renowned spy, has been seen working as Father Christmas at a local department store. Is he down on his luck, just needing a job, as his ex-girlfriend claims? Or is there something more nefarious going on? The plot thickens when Rand, the head of the Concealed Communications department, observes St. Ives handing out some very suspicious packages to some very suspicious parents and children. When one of the packages is intercepted, it is found to contain something very disturbing, along with a cryptic message that is almost not decoded in time. This was a very entertaining story and definitely not your run-of-the-mill Christmas tale.

Day 8: “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I have read many Sherlock Holmes stories in my life, but I did not remember reading this one before. It is a Christmas story, of course, involving a Christmas goose and a famous, valuable, and stolen jewel (the “blue carbuncle” of the story’s title) found in the goose’s crop when it was cooked. I like Sherlock Holmes stories, but this one was not one of my favorites. It seemed rather contrived, and as if Sir Arthur had merely “phoned this one in.” If you’re like me, and the term “carbuncle” makes you think of inflamed, painful boils on the skin (which is the medical definition of the term), here’s a picture of what a blue carbuncle might look like -- as far as I can gather, the term essentially refers to a ruby that is blue instead of red, which understandably would be quite rare and valuable.

Day 9: "A Christmas Tragedy" by Agatha Christie
This is a Miss Marple short story that is part of a larger collection, The Thirteen Problems. It’s one of those kinds of books where the characters sit around and tell stories, which happen to be the stories in the collection. THIS story was particularly interesting, in which Miss Marple recounts her encounter with a couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Sanders, and from the very moment she met them, she says she knew that Mr. Sanders was going to kill Mrs. Sanders. Well thanks, Miss Marple, for saving me the work of reading your story. However, this story, while indeed short, is a masterpiece of plotting, red herrings, and twisty endings, just the very thing that Agatha Christie was known for, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s available as a standalone story via Kindle, which is how I read it, but now I’m really thinking I need to get the entire book and read it.

Day 10: "The Tailor of Gloucester" by Beatrix Potter
I was underwhelmed by this story. The only Beatrix Potter I was familiar with before reading it was, of course, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” and it’s been quite some time since I read that one! This tale involves a tailor who is commissioned to make a coat for the Mayor of Gloucester in time for Christmas. But of course he runs into difficulties, gets sick, and cannot finish it in time. Mice that he just happened to rescue from his cat, Simpkin, come to his rescue in turn and finish the coat for him. I’m sure my opinion of this story was colored by the fact that this theme seems rather hackneyed by now, having been used by quite a few authors. But that certainly isn’t Ms Potter’s fault!

Day 11: "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
(Interestingly, the editor of the anthology from which I read this story notes that this story was originally entitled "Gifts of the Magi" when it was first published in the New York World. I'm not sure when the title got changed.)

What can I say about this story that has not already been said? Surely everyone has read this story. I will just say that it has been some years since I read it, but it has not lost its power to choke me up and make the world seem just a little bit kinder and more beautiful.

Day 12: "The Kid Hangs Up His Stocking" by Jacob Riis
I was unfamiliar with this story and author. I got the sense that this story and characters might be part of a larger work. But it's a great little story nonetheless. The residents of a boys' orphanage in New York notice that one of their newest and youngest members, a little boy they've dubbed "the Kid," has hung his stocking at the end of his bed in hopes of great things from Santa. The other, older boys can't stand to see the Kid disappointed on Christmas morning, so they conspire to do something about it.

"Hopscotch" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 24: "Hopscotch" by Ray Bradbury

This week the half-deck of cards served up the 3 of spades, and with it, another story from the Ray Bradbury collection.
(3 of spades image by Omegalpha on

To be honest, "Hopscotch" was one of those stories I had to read twice in order to even begin to appreciate it. It was first published in 1996, and the impression I sometimes get from the later Bradbury stories is that he became sort of self-indulgent in his later years. This is not any kind of criticism of Bradbury, goodness knows, because even on a bad day he could write rings around most authors, living or dead, with one typewriter tied behind his back. But this story is much, much different from "The Illustrated Man," an earlier Bradbury tale that I read last week.

For one thing, the first time I read this story, I thought that it really didn't have a typical plot. And it doesn't, not exactly -- but there once again is the genius of Bradbury. He can take a tale that doesn't seem to go anywhere, but load it up with enough imagery and symbolism that the story begins to take on a life, and a plot, in the reader's mind. Things do happen in this story, but the events of the story are as much internal as they are external.

The story focuses on Vinia, a young girl on the cusp of her 17th birthday. This border between her 16th and 17th birthdays is symbolized in the story by a hopscotch grid that someone has chalked on the sidewalk in front of Vinia's house, extending down the sidewalk and around the corner, out of sight:

Late yesterday, some child had chalked it out, immense and endlessly augmented, square upon square, line after line, numeral following numeral. You could not see the end of it. Down the street it built its crazy pattern, 3, 4, 5, on up to 10, then 30, 50, 90, on away to turn far corners. Never in all the children's world a hopscotch like this! You could jump forever toward the horizon.

At the beginning of the story, on the morning of her 17th birthday, she visualizes herself jumping along the grid, but she stops at the number 16, and can't make herself jump onto 17, not even in her mind's eye.

Then she receives a visit from her friend James, after thinking "It might be a special day. After all, it's my birthday. Anything might happen. And I hope it does." James is there to take Vinia on a walk, a walk that will last all day and which will be a kind of watershed in Vinia's life. The two roam far and wide, finally ending up inside an old hollow tree as they wait out a summer rainshower. Earlier in the day, James had asked Vinia if he could kiss her, and Vinia tells him that she'll decide if he can or not, and that she'll let him know. That kiss happens inside the hollow tree, and suddenly they are in love.

The writing in this story is typical Bradbury -- full of lush, visual language that at times simply overwhelms the reader. Here's just one small example of what I mean:

There was a smell of hot chalk highway, of dust and sky and waters flowing in a creek the color of grapes. The sun was a new lemon. The forest lay ahead with shadows stirring like a million birds under each tree, each bird a leaf-darkness, trembling. At noon, Vinia and James Conway had crossed vast meadows that sounded brisk and starched underfoot. The day had grown warm, as an iced glass of tea grows warm, the frost burning off, left in the sun.

(Notice that this story takes place in the summertime, Bradbury's high holy season.)

This is not my favorite Bradbury story, not by a long shot, but it is interesting, and is definitely worth a read (or even a re-read).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Fat Man by Ken Harmon

What would it be like if Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler wrote a Christmas story? For one thing, there would be a hard-boiled protagonist who is somewhat soured on life, but who is also teachable and perhaps more soft-hearted than he is willing to admit. There would be a beautiful dame who makes the protagonist’s heart skip a beat AND complicates his life more than a little. There would be an unlikely but powerful enemy who comes close to snuffing out the protagonist. There would be a dim-witted but genuinely helpful sidekick, perhaps. And most of all, there would be the pleasure of a story that jumps in a pile of figurative and imaginative language and rolls around and around, just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Well, if all of this sounds like a list of ingredients you would like to have as part of a Christmas story, then look no further. The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir by Ken Harmon is the book for you. And it’s thoroughly well done and enjoyable, to boot.

The protagonist, Gumdrop Coal, is Santa’s elf in charge of the so-called “Coal Patrol,” the elves that take care of Santa’s dirty work in handing out coal to the kids on the naughty list. He’s good at what he does, but he ultimately does it out of a ill-tempered desire to see kids get what they deserve. So it’s not long before kinder, gentler elves (but ones with ulterior motives, it seems) catch the ear of Santa and convince him that Gumdrop’s approach is all wrong. The Coal Patrol is disbanded, and Gumdrop is out on his ear. He decides to go rogue and show the parents of the naughty kids a little elf discipline, reasoning that they are really the source of the naughtiness. In fact, he knows that some of them were the ones he gave coal to as children, and they eventually grew up to be parents who couldn’t control their children in turn. The only problem with this plan is that one of the parents who is on Gumdrop’s figurative “hit list,” Raymond Hall,  is actually killed under mysterious circumstances, and Gumdrop is framed for the murder. This sets into motion the main events of the novel, as Gumdrop tries to clear his name and find out who really is behind the murder. Along the way, Gumdrop saves Santa from an untimely death, and figures out the true meaning of Christmas and giving (of course).

This all seems extremely fanciful and whimsical, and the author’s treatment of the story does not disappoint in keeping the reader smiling at all of the Christmas references woven throughout the story. For one thing, the title of each chapter is a snippet from a Christmas song or story -- “I’m Telling You Why,” “Stink, Stank, Stunk,” “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies,” and “I Really Can’t Stay” are just a few of the titles. In fact, one of the more fascinating parts of reading this novel was trying to identify the source of each chapter title; some of them are vaguely familiar but not exactly obvious, so you may have to search your memory to identify all of them. (In fact, can you identify the sources of the ones I listed here? Please take a stab at it in the comments!)

Another element of the novel that was tremendously fun was the way the author wove all the various characters associated with Christmas into the narrative. For example, Kringle Town is where Santa and the elves and all of the “good” Christmas characters live. But across the river is a darker, more hopeless town called Potterville (after Old Man Potter who is one of the central characters of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), and Gumdrop eventually has to venture there to track down the individuals behind the nefarious plot against Santa. And other characters make their appearance in the story as well. The gun that kills Raymond Hall is a BB gun that belongs to Ralphie, the main character of “A Christmas Story,” and -- you guessed it -- Hall is killed by having his eye shot out.

The Island of Misfit Toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” makes an appearance, and Gumdrop gets there on a boat piloted by Tiny Tim (of Dickens fame). There are so many references to characters scattered throughout the book that it becomes quite amusing just seeing what the author will come up with next. The various people and animals that populate the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” even play a role in the story, although in a much more ominous way.

And of course, the entire novel is written in the style of Hammett and Chandler, with all of the imaginative hard-boiled language, first-person POV, and snappy dialogue that go with that style. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of the first chapter (entitled “Nutcracker”):

The straight dope is that you don’t want to get on the Naughty List. It’s my job to make sure you don’t want your moniker anywhere near it. And brother, I like my job. I like it a lot. If you decide to pout, shout and cry, I’ll tattoo your mug with a rock that leaves a mark and stings all winter long. Lip off to parents and teachers, and I’m the one coming down the chimney, loaded for bear. Go ahead and roll the dice with lying, cheating, and pitching hissy fits. I’ll be there Christmas Eve to make sure you take your lumps. Of coal.

This novel is a real tour-de-force and it was an absolutely wonderful read for this time of year. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 1-5

Here are my notes and thoughts on the stories I've read for the first five days of my Advent Calendar of Stories project.

Dec. 1: "Santa Claus Beat" by Rex Stout
A newly-promoted cop wants nothing more than to be called to the scene of a homicide on Christmas Eve. Instead, he gets called to a mail-order house where a ring has gone missing, potentially stolen. He solves the crime and gets to (reluctantly) play Santa Claus in the bargain. A very short but highly entertaining story.

Day 2: “The Bargain” by Richard Barre
This story is from a collection that caught my eye on Amazon: Christmas Stories in the Tradition of Rod Serling. How can you resist that, right? Well, I don’t know how much in the tradition of Rod Serling this story was, but it was good, and judging from some of the information in the book, Richard Barre is evidently one of those best-kept-secrets in the writing world that one stumbles across occasionally. The story revolves around Axel Maldonado, a Baltimore businessman who is jaded, cynical about Christmas, and, I thought, vaguely reminiscent of Scrooge. He contracts with the city’s Housing and Redevelopment office to house a sick, elderly woman in one of his apartment buildings which is just waiting to be demolished after the holidays. Along the way, what starts out as merely a business transaction turns into a life-altering (and heart-opening) episode for Axel. Throw in Axel’s encounter with a mysterious tall black Santa Claus on the sidewalk in front of the building, and you have the makings of a story that is well worth the read.

Day 3: “Merry Christmas” by James Thurber
This is not so much a short story as a humorous essay filled with Thurber’s thoughts and observations on the yearly ritual of sending Christmas cards. Written in his usual droll style, it seems a little dated now, since people don’t send Christmas cards like they once did. Still, it’s a wonderful piece filled with gems like:

Ninety per cent of women employ the annual greeting as a means of fending off a more frequent correspondence. One woman admitted to me that she holds at least a dozen friends at arm’s, or year’s, length by turning greeting cards into a kind of annual letter. The most a man will consent to write on a Christmas card is “Hi, boy!” or “Keep pitching,” but a wife often manages several hundred words. These words, in most instances, have a way of dwindling with the march of the decades, until they become highly concentrated and even cryptic, such as “Will you ever forget that ox bice cake?” or “George says to tell Jim to look out for the 36.”

Day 4: “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” by John Cheever
This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories, so I was excited to put it on the calendar. However, it’s not my favorite because it gives the reader a case of warm Christmas fuzzies -- far from it. The protagonist, an elevator operator named Charlie, is not the most likeable or admirable of characters. But the story itself provides a wry social commentary, and one which I think is as relevant today as it was back in 1949 when Cheever published this story in The New Yorker.

The protagonist, Charlie, wakes up on Christmas morning feeling sorry for himself, because he has to go work in his elevator, which is located in what seems to be a rather posh apartment building in Manhattan. His gloominess about his plight in life pervades even the language Cheever uses in the first part of the story. As the residents of the apartment building begin using the elevator and wishing Charlie a merry Christmas, he begins his litany of telling them he’s all alone, he has no family, and “Christmas is a sad season for the poor.” After a while he tires of this and begins to embellish it, adding children and a crippled wife to his litany, and of course this has predictable, humorous, and eventually disastrous consequences for Charlie as the residents of the building all begin to respond to his plight.

Day 5: "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote
This also is one of my favorite stories and I manage to reread it every year, so I knew it had to go on my list for this project. It’s such a simple story but so rich and timeless. A young boy and his elderly cousin gather the ingredients for their yearly baking of Christmas fruitcakes. That’s pretty much it, although the story also describes their preparations for Christmas, involving cutting a tree and making presents. Boring? Not a bit of it -- the language and imagery and themes of this story are moving and timeless. If you’ve never read it, you owe it to yourself to sweep everything off your list and read this story immediately. It’s short and wonderful.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 23: "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury

It's week 23 of the Deal Me In Lite challenge, and this week I drew the four of spades, which took me back to my Ray Bradbury anthology for the fantastic (in every sense of that word) tale of "The Illustrated Man."

This story, originally published in Esquire in July 1950, is probably much better known as the basis for the story collection of the same name, published in 1951. In that collection, the device that ties all of the (otherwise) unrelated stories together is the "illustrated man," a man covered in tattoos, each of which depicts a different tale in the book. Jay at Bibliophilopolis, in particular, has read and blogged about several of the stories in this book.

In this story, which I found to be fascinating, but very dark even for a Bradbury story, we find the tale of William Philippus Phelps, a carnival worker. He has become extremely overweight since he got married a year ago, so to try to keep his job (and the love and admiration of his wife), he agrees to become the "Tattooed Man" for the carnival.

In desperation he searches out a tattoo artist who can transform him into a tattooed man as quickly as possible. He finds an old woman who lives way out in the country -- but of course she is not what she seems, not by a long shot. For one thing, her eyes, nose, and ears are all sewn shut. She also just happens to have a tattoo-portrait of Phelps on her palm, and it's clear that the tattoo has been there for many years. She can see the past, present, and future, and her specialty is to paint pictures of future events with her tattoo needles. She covers Phelps' body with a variety of wild images, including two special ones (one on his chest and one on his back) that she covers up with bandages. She warns Phelps that no one is allowed to see these special tattoos until the appointed time. She also makes a point of telling him:

"I will sit here for the next two weeks and think how clever my pictures are, for I make them fit each man himself and what is inside him."

Of course, at this point the reader begins to have a sneaking suspicion of what these tattoos might portray, but nevertheless willingly submits to Bradbury's masterful unfolding of the events leading up to the unveiling of the tattoos and the events that transpire afterwards, eventually bringing the story to a shocking conclusion.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Bradbury employs his usual magic with imagery in this story -- let's face it, the concept of a tattooed man is quite a "canvas" for him to play with, and he does not disappoint. If you've never read this story, it's well worth your time!