Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 27: "The Boy on the Train" by Arthur Robinson

I'm about a month behind on my Deal Me In reading and reviewing. Summer vacation happened to me (I'm not complaining though). Now it's time to catch up, which I plan to do over the next few days.

This story, originally published in the New Yorker, was chosen by the 6 of hearts -- which led me to The Best American Short Stories 1989. This is fast becoming my favorite of the four BASS volumes this year, probably because Margaret Atwood chose the stories.

At first glance, I thought this was going to be another "significant childhood event" story, and I was a little put off by that since I have had a rash of these kinds of stories lately. It did start out that way, but it quickly blossomed into something much more.

The story opens with little Lewis Fletcher, age 5, traveling by himself on the train all the way from Jacksonville, Florida to Camden, New York. The first his family hears of this, however, is 50 years later, when this factoid is printed as part of a "50 years ago today" feature in the local newspaper. This ignorance on the part of his family turns out to be not such a surprise, however, because we soon learn that Lewis is a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person who doesn't know how to relate to his wife and children very well, although the reader gradually realizes that he wants to relate, and he certainly does try.

Perhaps the most telling picture of Lewis as an adult and father comes as his three children -- Howard, Edward, and Sarah -- are discussing this pivotal event in their father's life:

In the evening, when their parents had gone to bed and the children stayed up talking, Sarah might say in a reverential tone, "Can you imagine him traveling alone from Jacksonville to Camden when he was five?" The two others -- Howard, the oldest, and Edward -- would say they could imagine it, that it was the easiest thing in the world to imagine. The picture they'd then conjure up was of a five-year-old old man with white hair, steel-rimmed bifocals, and a hearing aid that he kept turned off to save the flat, half-pint-shaped battery. (Edward and Howard had never thought of him as anything but an old man, even when they were small and he was in his thirties.) He would have dickered, they'd say, with the railroad until it agreed to give him a ticket in exchange for some worn-out toys, and he would have worked a deal in the dining car for his food, perhaps agreeing to polish silver. He would have brought along candy, fruit, and tattered copies of old newspapers to sell on the train. When he wasn't busy selling, or polishing silver, he'd be doing his bookkeeping. At every stop, he'd buy more stuff to sell, and at Jersey City he'd trade some of his inventory for the ferry ride to Manhattan. He'd be too busy to see the Hudson River or the Mohawk Valley, and when there was nothing else to do he'd make notes for the lectures he'd someday give his sons on How to Get Ahead and Be Somebody.

Of course, Howard and Edward's main goal in life is to make their father as miserable as possible, which they do with a series of shenanigans that make the story quite humorous. But later in the story, grown-up and with families of their own, they begin to appreciate the challenges that their father must have encountered with trying to raise them. It's not maudlin at all, but a rather bittersweet conclusion to a very satisfying story.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 26: "A Long Day's Dying" by William Eastlake

Have I ever mentioned that I love the synchronicity that occurs now and then with reading plans like Deal Me In? Yes? Well, this week reinforced that idea with a tale that takes place on the summer solstice, which occurred around the beginning of this week. The card this week was the 10 of spades, which took me to The Best American Short Stories 1964.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and on this day a young man named Little Sant (his father is known as Big Sant) is out on his horse in a lonely New Mexico canyon. He tries to cross a low spot in the canyon but his horse refuses to cross. Little Sant gets off his horse and tries to coax his horse, and soon finds out why the horse refused: he's in a patch of quicksand and is trapped. The horse breaks free and makes his way to higher ground while Little Sant starts sinking, thus beginning his long day of dying. He's there for hours, in the hot New Mexico summer sun, and he thinks a million thoughts. He also begins to hallucinate, of course, and Eastlake does a fantastic job of using language and imagery to depict his hallucinations, which begin gradually -- so gradually that the reader is not quite sure where Little Sant crosses over from rational to irrational thought.

Meanwhile, Big Sant and an Indian named Rabbit Stockings (one of Little Sant's friends) have begun looking for Little Sant. Big Sant is convinced that his son traveled up into the mountains to gather up horses, but Rabbit Stockings is equally convinced that Little Sant went down into the canyon, and is drowning. Big Sant ridicules Rabbit Stockings's intuition, and in general the exchange between these two is actually a humorous part of what could otherwise be a depressing story:

But what happened to the boy? What happened to Little Sant? Probably his horse went lame. Don't ask Rabbit Stockings; Indians are alarmists. "You are, you know, Rabbit Stockings."

"What's that?"

"You want to make a big thing out of nothing. Does the peace pipe go from right to left or from left to right?"

"What's a peace pipe?"

"You see, you have gotten over many of your superstitions. Why don't you get over the rest?"

"If an Indian believes something it's called superstition; when a white man believes something it's called progress."

In the course of their conversation it comes out that Rabbit Stockings's guardian spirit is a snake, and not long after, up on the mountain they encounter a rattlesnake which spooks their horses. After this, Big Sant decides maybe they should check the canyon after all. When they get there, Little Sant is alive and out of the quicksand, due to a chance encounter with another snake which makes the reader go "Hmmmmmm...." -- not out of some unrealistic plot twist, but because of how the author skillfully ties the threads of the story together in the ending.

This was a highly entertaining and engrossing story, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 25: "Customs of the Country" by Madison Smartt Bell

This week, the four of hearts took me to an excellent story by Madison Smartt Bell, from The Best American Stories 1989.

The unnamed narrator of "Customs of the Country" is a young woman trying to get her life back on track. She does not succeed in the way that she hopes, but she does succeed. She's trying to regain custody of her young son, Davey, after losing him due to her drug addiction. She has cleaned up, and it's been two years, and she's ready to get him back. So to prove that she's ready, she gets a waitressing job at a truckstop, and rents a small apartment in a not-very-prosperous part of town. She does her best to make the apartment clean and homey, despite the nightly spouse abuse that goes on next door (always ending with a body hitting the wall hard enough to knock her pots and pans off the kitchen wall).

As she makes preparations to get Davey back from his foster family, we learn her backstory: about her husband, Patrick, who started stealing drugs from the hospital where he worked as an orderly and selling them on the street; her addiction to these drugs, and her withdrawal from them when Patrick gets arrested; and the inevitable crash when, sick from her withdrawal, she slings Davey across the room just a little too hard and breaks his leg.

The reader really begins to root for this young woman, because she's trying so hard. In her words, "Sometimes you don't get but one mistake, if the one you pick is bad enough." And she knows she has to work as hard as she can to recover from her mistake. But it's not enough. The judge decides to keep Davey with his foster family, with the understanding that they will eventually adopt him. It's a tragic blow to the young woman. But she recovers in a way that is both surprising, shocking, and redemptive.

I can't say enough about this great story. It's one of those that sucks you in from the beginning and carries you along effortlessly until the climax, and it was very satisfying to read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 24: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke

The card: King of clubs

The anthology: The Best American Short Stories 1986

The story: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke

(This story is not in any way humorous, as implied by that photo of Buster Keaton in one of his roles, but I liked it.)

I don't know what it is, but the short story gods have been conspiring lately to line up a bunch of "childhood traumatic realization" stories for me to read lately. This one is certainly one of the better ones I have read lately.

This story takes place in and around the town of New Iberia in south Louisiana, in the early days of integration. It's told from the point of view of young Avery Broussard, whose father Will is a highly respected citizen of the town, even though he frequently holds unpopular viewpoints, such as integration might be OK, and an escaped black convict might possibly have a soul and a good reason for wanting to run away from prison.

On the way back home from town one Friday evening, Avery and his parents are stopped at a roadblock, where a state policeman warns the family that there's a couple of convicts who have escaped from the infamous Angola prison (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) and are on the loose. Of course one of the convicts ends up hiding out in the Broussards' shed, and Will's attempts to treat the man with common decency strains his relationship with his wife. Avery observes all this and tries to make sense of it. He admires his dad immensely, but he also knows that Will is doing something that could get him into lots of trouble, and he doesn't know what to make of any of it.

Will ends up helping the convict move on, but he ends up back at the Broussards' farm after being trapped by further roadblocks. Will has no choice but to turn the man in at this point, and how that happens (and the mental gymnastics the Sheriff has to go through to keep from letting any blame fall on Will for harboring the fugitive) makes for an interesting climax and denouement to the story.

I was unfamiliar with James Lee Burke's writing before reading this story, but Wikipedia informs me that he is a prolific writer, probably best known for his series of mysteries involving the character Dave Robicheaux. Since he hails from my general region, I think I will have to explore more of his writing.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 23: "The Mail Lady" by David Gates

I love mail. I love sending it, receiving it, blogging about it -- you name it. So when I was composing my Deal Me In roster of stories for this year, I couldn't resist adding this one to the list just solely because of the title. The Queen of Diamonds picked it out for me from The Best American Short Stories 1994.

(The beautiful Queen of Diamonds card was designed by Romanian artist Roxana Ganescu.)

The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Lewis Coley, who has been partially incapacitated by a stroke. He has trouble walking and speaking, but is otherwise intelligent and alert, so he makes for a most interesting main character. All of his frustrations with daily life, his family, and his surroundings come out in the narrative, but he of course can't do much about any of them any more.

Lewis is not the most likeable character, however. He has found religion late in his life, before the stroke, and his religion is clearly important to him -- he treats his life post-stroke as a kind of cross he must bear, although he doesn't understand it. But in spite of his religious conversion, he manages to be a pompous, irritable, self-righteous know-it-all who is more or less alienated from his daughter Wiley, and his wife Alice. He's also embarrassed and over-sensitive about his illness, wondering how Alice can possibly still put up with him. Although he doesn't sound very nice, the reader does learn to sympathize with Lewis and what he is going through, because his interior monologue and memories constitute the entire story.

So how does the mail lady from the title figure into all this? Well, I don't want to give away too much of the story, because I definitely think it's worth your time to find and read. But in short, the mail lady is a Mrs. Laffond, who dresses in mannish clothes (in Lewis' opinion) and drives a big pickup truck that often comes to the rescue of townspeople whose cars are stuck in ditches. Such is Lewis' small and bigoted mind that he suspects Mrs. Laffond of being a lesbian even though she has been married with children and he has no other evidence to go on than what she drives and how she dresses. However, the point of the story seems to be that Lewis is supposed to be paying a penance through his illness that is teaching him humility and his reliance on others -- so you just know Mrs. Laffond is going to come to his rescue at some point in the story. And she does.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It was a long story, but Lewis' interior monologue was so engrossing that it was a relatively quick read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 22: "Black Snowflakes" by Paul Horgan

This week the Queen of Spades led me to an affecting story about death and a child's sudden realization of mortality. I think it's quite interesting that this card was unwittingly linked to this story in my Deal Me In roster for this year. The Queen of Spades is a card that often has a dark, negative connection. According to Wikipedia, it's an unlucky, undesirable card in the game of Hearts, and it's also used as the Old Maid when one uses a regular deck of cards for that game. It also figures in the famous story by Pushkin. So this was just another example of Deal Me In synchronicity, which is one of the things that makes this reading challenge so interesting.


"Black Snowflakes" begins this way:

"Richard, Richard," they said to me often in my childhood, "when will you begin to see things as they are?"

But I always learned from one thing what another was, and it was that way when we all went from Dorchester to New York to see my grandfather off for Europe, that year before the First World War broke out.

The story is told from the point of view of Richard as a child, and it's a mesmerizing world of high society, comfort, and shelter. Richard's grandfather was originally from Germany, and he made a trip back to his homeland every year or two as a matter of habit. But this year's trip is different, and the entire family is traveling to see "Grosspa" (as they call him) set off on the ocean liner. Richard feels that something is wrong -- everyone is acting differently, there are sudden bouts of crying by some of the family members -- but he really can't put his finger on what it is. Besides, there's so many special delights and treats on this trip. The family stays in the Waldorf-Astoria the night before the ocean voyage, Richard gets his first glass of champagne (highly watered-down, of course, but still exciting for him), and he has the promise of shopping in New York and buying gifts for his friends, which includes the neighborhood ice delivery man and his horse.

It soon becomes clear that Grosspa is dying, however, and that he is going home to Germany to die. Richard understands this but also doesn't understand it -- that is, it doesn't sink in. After the family leaves the boat, with Grosspa on it, "like some wounded old lion crawling home to die," in the words of Richard's father, Richard sees snowflakes falling from the sky. These snowflakes appear black to him against the sunlight, and he tells his parents to look at the black snowflakes. His parents see this as another example of Richard's not being able to see things as they really are. However, eventually Richard experiences another death that brings all of this home to him and finally lets him see what death means and what it is like.

This was a captivating story. The language, the imagery, and the plot all worked perfectly together to evoke a mood for this reader that lasted long after the story was over. I highly recommend it!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 21: "Disneyland" by Barbara Gowdy

This week the five of hearts led me to an extremely captivating story from The Best American Short Stories 1989. I chose this story solely because of the title. Who doesn't want to read a story involving Disneyland? But you have probably already guessed that this story has almost nothing to do with Disneyland, hence its intriguing nature.

As the story opens, it's Christmas 1960, and three young sisters -- Linda, Louise, and Sandy -- are getting a summertime trip to Disneyland from their parents. Their dad is taking two weeks off from work, and they're planning to have a great time.

Then paranoia and fear set in about nuclear bombs being dropped on the US, and Dad becomes obsessed with building a fallout shelter in the backyard (which he does), and leading the family through countless drills to see how quickly they can all get to the shelter in case of an attack.

Summertime comes, and Dad announces that the family is going to spend two weeks down in the fallout shelter, simulating what life would be like after a real attack. It becomes quickly and painfully obvious that THIS is the two weeks the family was to have spent at Disneyland, and they are about to experience a Disneyland of a different sort -- a not-very-nice one. The family barely gets settled into the shelter when Louise has her first period. Of course they have no supplies for such a thing, so they have to improvise with rags and such. The family is forced by Dad to follow a strict daily schedule, which includes periods of darkness throughout the day to conserve candles and fuel. This would not be so bad, except that every time the lights go out, Sandy, the youngest daughter, smells an odor that she is convinced is the smell of their dead dog, Checkers, who was buried somewhere in the backyard, and -- who knows? -- maybe the shelter was built near his grave.

Although this sounds like a somewhat horrifying story (because it kind of is one), it was still fascinating to me as a psychological study of the characters. I like stories where you put characters into some weird or difficult situation like this one, and then see what they do.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 20: "Today Will Be a Quiet Day" by Amy Hempel

This week the seven of clubs dealt me a story by Amy Hempel, an author with whom I was not familiar, but who is critically acclaimed for her stories. Doubtless some of my Deal Me In comrades have read some of Hempel's stuff and will chime in with their thoughts on this story. As is the case with the suit of clubs, this story came from The Best American Short Stories 1986, and it was first published in The Missouri Review.


"Today Will Be a Quiet Day" is one of those stories where you know something is going on underneath the events of the story, and the characters are trying their best to act normal, but they are not quite succeeding. The gist of the story, which is quite short, is that a father has decided to spend the day with his daughter and son on an outing. (As I understand it, none of Amy Hempel's characters have names.) There's some allusion to a friend of the son's who committed suicide a year ago, and there's no mention or evidence of a mother, but otherwise this is a family that appears normal. However, I could not shake the nagging feeling that the characters were all covering up something, perhaps something painful. I think this because each of the characters was constantly wisecracking throughout the entire story. And while this made for a very entertaining story on one level, it immediately made me think that something was wrong. The wisecracking was almost manic in its intensity and rapidity, which is often a sign of deeper problems.

Little by little things come out, traumatic things that the characters barely speak of, such as the family dog that had to be put down for biting a little girl. The daughter in the story dreams of running away and changing her name, but we don't know why. And back home after their outing (which, by the way, we also never get any real sense of why the father felt compelled to cancel his kids' music lessons and take them out for the day), the three bed down in sleeping bags in the master bedroom. Why do they all feel the need to sleep in the same room? Is the mother's absence the elephant in the room, so to speak? Lots of unanswered questions in this story. As the title suggests, today IS a quiet day, but it's quiet because of what's not being said.

Despite sounding rather ambivalent about this story, I did enjoy it, and I would like to read more of Amy Hempel's stuff.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 19: "The German Refugee" by Bernard Malamud

Back in December of last year, Katherine (of The Writerly Reader) and Dale (of Mirror with Clouds) both recommended that I read "The German Refugee" by Bernard Malamud. This story can be found in The Best American Stories 1964. So I assigned it to the 2 of spades, and this week, the story's number came up, as it were.


And what a powerful and affecting story it was! The plot is relatively simple. The story takes place in the years before World War II. Martin Goldberg, a college student in New York, earns money by teaching English to European refugees who have fled from Hitler. He earns a dollar an hour, and his clients in this endeavor, oddly enough, are world-famous economists, historians, and film stars. They just need some help with their English.

One of Martin's students is Oskar Gassner, a critic and journalist recently emigrated from Berlin. He left his wife behind because he fears she is a Nazi sympathizer. So he's all alone in New York, with a new job as a lecturer at the Institute for Public Studies. He can communicate in English, but he's nowhere near fluent enough in it to be a lecturer. So this is where Martin comes in, and Martin soon realizes that not only does Oskar need English tutoring, but he needs confidence-building. He's demoralized by everything that has brought him to this moment, and Martin's job is to help him through his lecture-writing block. If I were to boil this story down to its simplest elements, it is essentially a Pygmalion story. By hard work and support and friendship, he produces a beautiful work of art in the Oskar who finally writes a masterful lecture and delivers it to the Institute in almost flawless English.

Even though the plot is somewhat predictable, Malamud does an incredible job of making the characters of Oskar and Martin living, breathing souls that you immediately care about. And there's a dark undercurrent to the story as well, which gives a kind of twist at the end. So it's not entirely predictable. But I'm not going to tell you how it ends. You really should get a copy of this excellent story and read it for yourself. The story was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, and is available on their website here. I promise, it's well worth your time!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 18: "Invisible Life" by Kent Nelson

This week I returned to The Best American Short Stories 1986, bidden by the Queen of clubs to a quite intriguing story first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.


"Invisible Life" is the story of a no-longer-young couple, Tom and Allison, and their three children Hillary, Tricia, and baby Livingston. They have a normal-appearing life until one day, shortly after the baby is born, Allison decides she's going back to school for graduate studies in history. Tom is perplexed about Allison's motivation to suddenly go back to school clear across the country and leave her family temporarily in the process. For her part, Allison is Sphinx-like in her reasons and never really comes out and talks about it to anyone except Tom's mother, who seems to understand her reasons. This infuriates Tom because he didn't think Allison even liked his mother. Furthermore, he thinks all this may stem from some kind of postpartum depression, even though Allison seems more focused and happier than before the baby was born.

The undercurrent (pun intended) of the whole story seems to be Allison's unseen and untalked-about motivations, and eventually Tom begins to see her decision in a negative light:

"We just can't get along without you," I said more softly.

"Certainly you can," she whispered. "What would you do if I died?"

Hypothetical questions have always irritated the hell out of me. I didn't know what I would do if she were to die, but she was not about to. I would not know what to do if my law practice suddenly evaporated, or if Allison were miraculously beautiful, or if Hillary were taking cocaine. I only know what I do at the moment, in response to a real event or a real threat. And I began to consider Allison's scheme a threat.

Tom becomes ultra-suspicious, and not without good reason. He wants Allison to rent a nice apartment in a good part of town near Harvard, which is where she is accepted, and she refuses, choosing instead a run-down, dirty apartment in a seedy neighborhood. One day she suddenly cancels her telephone service without telling Tom. She cuts her hair very short and becomes much thinner. There's every indication that she has, as the title of the story indicates, an entire "invisible life" that is completely inaccessible to Tom.

The title of the story is also illustrated in another episode where Tom and Tricia are gazing into a stream and he begins to tell her about the tiny, invisible creatures that live there, such as protozoa which his dad had demonstrated to him with a microscope, very scientifically and factually. Tom asks Tricia how she might figure out if these tiny creatures were really there or not, expecting her to provide some similar solution as a microscope. However, she responds that she can tell they are there by the fish -- that the fish wouldn't be able to live in the stream unless there were also many smaller creatures that they could eat to stay alive. It's a telling moment (which somehow is still lost on Tom) where he is being asked to trust in things that he can't see or understand.

"Stream in the Woods" -- photo by Jim Pokorny

The story ends on a more hopeful note, however, with Tom back at the stream in wintertime, and at this point the reader gets the impression that light is beginning to break through and Tom is at least more able to accept Allison's actions in spite of still not being able to understand them fully.

I really enjoyed this story. The atmosphere of not knowing what was going on underneath the surface, while normally irritating to me as a reader, instead worked very well in this story.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 17: "The Prophet from Jupiter" by Tony Earley

This week the King of Diamonds took me back to The Best American Short Stories 1994 volume for a story by Tony Earley, originally published in Harper's Magazine.

(Image of the King of Diamonds from the WhiteKnuckle Cards website)

I read this story as my first item in Dewey's Readathon yesterday. It was a captivating story, full of images and quirky characters, and while I don't feel like I got everything out of the story that was there, I enjoyed it very much.

The story is narrated by an unnamed main character, the dam-keeper of a dam in a sleepy little North Carolina resort town called Lake Glen. The dam is an elaborate affair, complete with a generator which supplies the town with more electricity than it can ever use. The dam-keeper's job is to monitor water levels and make sure they are appropriate both for the generator, the dam, and for the residents who recreationally use the lake created by the dam.

The dam-keeper thus becomes a town historian of sorts -- being on the job 24/7, he sees and hears everything. And there's a lot that goes on in this town. It even has its "ghosts" of a sort, since the lake encompasses another town that was flooded when the dam was built.

It has nothing to do with this story, but there's a famous submerged town in Lake Resia, Italy -- all that can be seen now is the bell tower of the church.

The title of the story comes from one of the characters, a former realtor named Archie Simpson who lived in Jupiter, Florida before moving to Lake Glen. He's a prophet because he claims God told him so -- he's the One True Prophet who will lead Christians in the last days. In a sense, the events of this story give the reader a certain sense that some of the characters are living through their own "last days" -- the dam-keeper's wife has left him for the new police chief, the dam-keeper is being replaced by a guy named Randy who is the assistant dam-keeper -- everything seems to be falling apart in a way.

This was an intriguing story because there was so much going on in it. It was also a little confusing because the narrative was not at all straightforward. The narrator keeps jumping back and forth between current events and the events of the past (which, of course, have shaped and informed the current events). It's one of those stories where things come out bit by bit, and by the end of the story the reader has a complete picture of what is really going on. Although it can be confusing, this is one of my favorite kinds of stories because it's most like real life.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Dewey's Readathon: Wrap-up

Here's my final reading activity for this spring's Dewey's Readathon. With the 150 pages or so of Broken Monsters that I read to finish the book, I read much less for this readathon than the last one, but I'm not stressed about it. Any reading activity is good!

Stories I read from the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Glimmer Train:
"Window" by Lee Montgomery
A young girl tries to deal with her older sister running away, leaving her to a sad home life.

"The Bears" by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
A highly interesting take on the classic Goldilocks story: a young woman recovering from a miscarriage finds her way back to health (and fecundity) via a strange encounter with a bearish stranger whose home she invades.

"Slaughter" by Jon Chopan
Young American soldiers preparing for war in Iraq deal with life and death, including an oddly humorous undercurrent of a soldier constantly looking for the head of a decapitated woman (which he finally finds).

"A Dispatch from Mt. Moriah" by Daniel Torday
Mount Moriah was traditionally the site of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. This is the compelling story of a young Jewish man, Jacob, who meets and falls in love with Rachael, the daughter of a famous astrophysicist. However, she is being slowly "sacrificed" through her father's dominating manner and insistence on religious purity.

Stories I read from Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense:
"Not a Laughing Matter" by Evan Hunter
A famous actor is brought low by his drinking problem and is forced to work as a department store Santa Claus. But he has plans for the manager who constantly makes fun of him.

"Recipe for Murder" by James Holding
A famous retired chef is held hostage by his conniving niece and her husband in order to obtain his world-famous soup recipe. He is forced to give it to them, but not without a few "special additions" to the recipe.

And that's a wrap for this spring's readathon!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dewey's Readathon: Update 3

I finished Broken Monsters in a page-turning gulp just now. It turned out to be really good, although it had a supernatural twist to it that I wasn't expecting. What seemed to be just a regular (if ultra-creepy) tale of a Detroit serial killer turned out to be something much more bizarre and interesting. I'll be writing a regular review of the book soon, but for now, I highly recommend it.

The storming outside has stopped, so I think I will take a break from the house and go do some non-reading things for a while. But next up, when I return to the readathon, I'll be dipping into my copy of Glimmer Train!

Dewey's Readathon: Update 2

Well, I must say, if there was ever a suitable day for a readathon, it's the one I am having. Where I am today, it's rainy and a little stormy -- not so stormy as to worry about it, just stormy enough to keep one indoors in a comfy chair, reading.

Progress: 94 more pages in Broken Monsters -- and I should have no trouble finishing it today, then moving on to some of my short stories, which I am more than eager to get to.

Dewey's Readathon: Update 1

I'm off to a slow start for my participation in Dewey's Readathon this year, but I'm not stressing about it. So far (about three and a half hours in, at this point), I have done just a little bit of reading (see below), and no challenges. But I have to remember......

Reading so far:

  • Completed my Deal Me In Challenge story for this week: "The Prophet from Jupiter" by Tony Earley (I have a separate review forthcoming, but this was a very interesting and captivating story.)
  • About 35 pages in Broken Monsters -- still resisting reading it for some reason, but I am enjoying the story, which now around page 300, is really beginning to heat up big time.
So I will leave you with this:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Twas the Night Before Dewey's...

Tomorrow Dewey's Readathon starts at 7 AM in my time zone. I feel like it has snuck up on me this time, even to the point of my thinking I had signed up for it when I really hadn't. I'm not quite sure what I was waiting for, but I rectified that problem today.

As usual, I don't feel like I have enough time to actually do the readathon justice, but I'm not letting that stop me. I figure I will read what I can read, and have fun with it, and that will be enough. Mainly, I don't want to be left out!

I'm being as modest as I can with my Dewey's TBR list this time around though:

First up, I am taking this opportunity to finish Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. This is actually a holdover from my TBR Double Dog Dare earlier in the year, at which I failed miserably (more about that in another post). I like this book but I have been very slow reading it. I'm about halfway through it. I think it's because the subject matter is not entirely pleasant, and I think I am subconsciously resisting reading it. So at the very least, Dewey's will help me break through this block and finish this book.

Second: the current issue of Glimmer Train came to my mailbox the other day, and I haven't had two spare minutes to rub together and open it, so Dewey's is going to give me a chance to dip into this issue and read some of the stories therein. I don't have any idea that I will be able to finish all the stories in this issue tomorrow (I think I counted 17 stories), but I figure I should be able to pick it up and put it down at will -- which fits my readathon style perfectly. I am NOT a person that has the desire or the luxury of reading for 24 hours straight. So I need more "bite-sized" reading material.

In the same vein, I checked out this book, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense, from my local library a few weeks ago, and have not cracked it open. I renewed it today for the express purpose of using it in the Readathon also. I won't be reading all of these stories either, I'm 100% confident, but it's more short stories to keep me going!

I'll be posting updates periodically throughout the day and night tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 16: "Proper Library" by Carolyn Ferrell

The card this week:

The collection:

The story: "Proper Library" is an unusual little story about a black teenager nicknamed Lorrie. His real name is Lawrence Lincoln Jefferson Adams. When the story opens, we learn that he has been out of school for six months, mainly because he has fallen in love with a boy named Rakeem (who appears to be a very bad influence). But he also keeps himself busy during his time off, helping take care of his younger brothers and sisters and cousins, and teaching himself math out of the "Math 4" book. He finally decides he should go back to school, but the pull of Rakeem is strong. His family warns him not to pay any attention to Rakeem, and Lorrie's mantra throughout the story is "I keep moving," a phrase one gradually comes to realize is Lorrie's guard against Rakeem and everything else that would pull him back out of school and towards things and people that are not good for him.

The title of the story comes from Lorrie's efforts to learn as many words as possible for the City Wide Test, an achievement test that will let him finally progress to the next grade. One word he has trouble with is "library," always managing to pronounce it "liberry." Lorrie's constant poring over words to learn also seems to be symbolic of his efforts to break away from his past and "keep moving on" to better things. By the end of the story, Lorrie thinks he has figured out a way to reconcile his desire to be with Rakeem AND to continue his education, but we never find out if he is successful or not.

This was an interesting story, but it was one of those stories that I had to read carefully just to figure out what the heck was going on. It was otherwise pretty realistic and slightly depressing. I wanted to root for Lorrie's efforts to get his life back on track, but in the end it seemed as if his chances weren't that good.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 15: "Birthday Party" by Shirley Jackson

This week I drew the Ace of spades, which led me to another story from The Best American Short Stories 1964. This story, "Birthday Party" by Shirley Jackson, also happened to be chosen for me way back in January by Jay, the ringleader of this little cartomancy cruise.

Shirley Jackson, right? The only two works of hers with which I am familiar are the short story "The Lottery," and the novel The Haunting of Hill House. Both creep-fests, to be sure. So I was fully prepared for this to be a creepy birthday party.

The story opens as we meet Jannie, a young girl on the morning of her eleventh birthday. She's excited to death, and has convinced her parents to let her have a pajama party with four of her friends. Her older brother, Laurie, is not so sure this is a good idea, and moans his way through the whole story about how horrible five giggling girls are going to be. Jannie's mother sets up cots in her bedroom and library, and gets ready for THE HORRIBLE, BLOODY NIGHT THAT NONE OF THEM WILL EVER FORGET. (Shirley Jackson, right??!)

No, turns out that Jannie and her friends are typical excited little girls that really can't sleep all night. (Oh, ok, Shirley -- I'm sure you're just building up the suspense.)

Jannie has received all kinds of cool presents for her birthday, including her very own record player, and an Elvis Presley record.... THAT MAKES YOU GO INSANE THE MINUTE YOU START LISTENING TO IT. (Shirley, come on, please start creeping me out!)

No, the Elvis Presley record just makes Jannie's brother go insane, when the girls play it half the night. (At this point I'm throwing some pretty insulted looks at Shirley..... she's taking a long time to get the creep-fest going.)

Within a few pages of the end of the story, I realized that Shirley was going to let me down. This is not a creepy story. It IS a (not very) humorous story about five flighty little girls staying up half the night at a birthday party and making the mother crazy with their jumping in and out of bed, their spats (during the course of the night, it seems as if each one of the little girls gets mad at all the others, and makes up with all the others just as quickly), and assorted girlish shenanigans.

I kind of hated this story. Part of it was because I was convinced it was going to be something different than it was, but part of it was that the story came across as a type of half-baked Erma Bombeck story. This story WAS written in the same time period when Erma began to be popular, so I don't have any idea if Shirley was trying to channel that kind of humorous story, but if so, she didn't do it very well. The story was first published in Vogue, so I suppose that should have given me half a clue to begin with -- Vogue was not then, and is still not, known for publishing creepy fiction. Oh well.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 14: "Have You Seen Sukie?" by Robert Penn Warren

It's week 14 of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge, and this week the 6 of spades invited me back to 1964 and a captivating story by Robert Penn Warren. This story was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1964.


Robert Penn Warren, I suspect, is one of those authors that most people have at least heard of, but probably many fewer people have actually read. I know he was that way for me. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men has been on my TBR list for a LONG time, so maybe I will get around to reading it soon. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry (the only person to have ever won the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry, according to Wikipedia), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate. So based on all that AND this story, I would very much like to read more of his stuff.

In the story "Have You Seen Sukie?" we are introduced to the character of Mr. "Boots" Budd, the deputy warden of an unnamed penitentiary. He's showing off the prison to a couple of visitors, and we never really get any information about why they are there. However, there's definitely a sense that they are there on some kind of official business, and that the Warden has fobbed them off on his deputy.

Far from being annoyed by this duty, Mr. Budd is happy to give the visitors a tour. He takes great pride in his job and how he keeps the prison running smoothly. During the tour, he comments on everything in such a way that we get to see pretty deeply into his psyche. Plus, Mr. Budd is chock full of aphorisms (dialect and all):

"Don't allow no guns in. Guns give somebody the notion of tryen to take a gun off somebody."

"You get the habit of turning yore head, and you will soon get the habit of being dead."

"We got a real nice pharmacist. Gonna have him a long time. Had him a nice drugstore in Brownsville and killed his wife. She caught him with the soda fountain gal. We are waiten for a real good doctor somewhere in this here state to kill his wife for ketchen him with the nurse."

"You know why they got in in the first place?" (Here Mr. Budd is referring to the inmates.) "It is because they are lonesome. Some folks are born lonesome and they can't stand the lonesomeness out there. It is lonesome in here maybe but it ain't as lonesome when you are with folks that knows they are as lonesome as you are."

Immediately after this comment, one of the visitors says, "Mr. Budd, you are a philosopher." Budd shoots back with, "I am a Deppity Warden." (That struck me as absolutely hilarious, but I still don't know why.)

Suddenly Budd says, "Let's go see Sukie," and it soon becomes apparent that Sukie is the name of the prison's electric chair. On the way to see the chair, they stop at the cell of one of the Death Row inmates, a young black man named Pretty-Boy. Budd asks the young man to sing a song for the visitors, and at this moment it finally struck me that Budd is not so much a deputy warden as he is a zookeeper of sorts, showing off his "collection" to the visitors. To me, the tone of the whole encounter with Pretty-Boy is one of a animal trainer putting his animal through its paces.

When Budd and his visitors finally make it to the small, bare room where Sukie is kept, Budd positively begins to rhapsodize about the chair: how it works, how beautiful it is, etc. It turns out that Budd also serves as the executioner, the person who throws the switch. "She is ever-man's sweetheart," he says. "Sukie -- she is waiten for you."

As you can tell, there wasn't actually much of a plot to this story, but I liked it a lot nonetheless. It was a fascinating psychological study of Budd, who thinks that no one is completely innocent. Warren deftly paints a picture of Budd and his mental state as he rules the prison with an iron fist.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 13: "Gossip" by Frank Conroy

It was unlucky week 13 of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge (or maybe it's lucky, who knows?) and the 9 of clubs served up a story from The Best American Short Stories 1986 -- an interesting little story by Frank Conroy. I was unfamiliar with him or his work, but Google tells me that he was the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop for 18 years. Interestingly (or not), he began his directorship of that program a couple of years after this story was first published in Esquire.


"Gossip" is the story of George, a young writer who finds himself at a weeklong beach retreat with a group of his writer friends, and without his wife. He has a tryst with a young actress, Susan, who has joined them. They carry on their brief affair the whole time they're at the beach, not believing that they are getting away with it, and that no one seems to know about it -- but it's true. The week at the beach ends and Susan and George go their separate ways, and no one is the wiser.

Some years after this, George is a writing teacher and gets a new student, Joan, who turns out to be highly promising as a writer. George sees her potential, and puts in countless hours meeting and working with her, reading her material and helping her polish her prose. Everything is going swimmingly until Joan begins to grow distant and eventually leaves the program suddenly. George is perplexed until he finds out that someone has spread gossip about him and Joan having an affair on the side, when in fact they have been as chaste and pure as the driven snow.

There was more to this story, but this is the gist of it. And I really didn't enjoy this story that much. It was well-written, and the ironic twist of George getting away with his real affair and being blamed for an affair he never conducted was interesting. But in the end, it was just...... eh.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 12: "Batting Against Castro" by Jim Shepard


Week 12 of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge brings the five of diamonds and a story by Jim Shepard, originally published in The Paris Review and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1994. You might imagine that "Batting Against Castro" sounds like it might be a baseball story, and you would be right. I approached this story with some trepidation because 1. I am not a person who enjoys reading about any sport, and 2. to me, baseball is just slightly less exciting than watching paint dry.

But what saves this story for even a reader like me is the tone. The story reads like a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler: wry, witty humor bordering on the absurd. I ended up loving every minute of it.

The story takes place in 1951, and is the tale of two hapless professional baseball players, the unnamed narrator and his friend Charley, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. And they are not exactly the best batters on the team. In fact, at one point the narrator says his batting average is around .143, which even I can tell is not great. So it’s not surprising that the two are about to get shipped off to the minor league team in Allentown, but after a while they decide to take matters into their own hands and head for the winter leagues in Cuba.

Charley is not so sure about this at first, however:

Charley took some convincing. He’d sit there in the Allentown dugout, riding the pine even in Allentown, whistling air through his chipped tooth and making faces at me. This Cuba thing was stupid, he’d say. He knew a guy played for the Athletics went down to Mexico or someplace, drank a cup of water with bugs in it that would’ve turned Dr. Salk’s face white, and went belly-up between games of a double-header. “Shipped home in a box they had to seal,” Charley said. He’d tell that story, and his tooth would whistle for emphasis.

So they end up in Cuba, of course, and after they get used to everything (the heat, the fans who like to pelt them with live snakes, and the teammates who put bird spiders in their caps and crushed chiles in the water fountain), their hitting actually starts to improve. And then one day they realize that their games are being attended by Batista, the then-president/dictator of Cuba, and Castro, the future dictator (whom I found out, after a little research, really did have an intense interest in baseball and who was a pitcher, at least on the intramural level).

Finally there comes the day and the game where Castro leaves the stands and fills in as pitcher when the opposing team runs out through their pitching roster.

He crossed to the mound, and the Marianao skipper watched him come and then handed him the ball when he got there like his relief ace had just come in from the pen. Castro took the outfielder’s hat for himself, but that was about it for uniform. The tails of his pleated shirt hung out. His pants looked like Rudolf Valentino’s. He was wearing dress shoes. I turned to the ump. “Is this an exhibition at this point?” I said. He said something in Spanish that I assumed was, “You’re in a world of trouble now.”

I won’t give away the ending, although I suspect you might have an idea how the story ends. But this story is well worth the read, and worth tracking down. It’s included in Shepard’s short story collection of the same name, and I have a mind to get it and read some more of this author who can make even me care about a baseball game.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.