Saturday, February 28, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 9: "Upon the Sweeping Flood" by Joyce Carol Oates

This week the 5 of spades led me back to The Best American Short Stories 1964 and to an interesting yet unsatisfying story by Joyce Carol Oates.

"Upon the Sweeping Flood" tells the tale of Walter Stuart, a seemingly mild-mannered man on his way home to his family in the face of an impending hurricane. His car is stopped by a sheriff's deputy and told that he should turn around and go back to town, that it's too dangerous to proceed further. Walter, of course, disregards this advice and pushes on though to the events of the story.

He soon happens upon two youths standing in the middle of the road in front of a farm. There's an unnamed girl whom Walter supposes to be about 18, and a boy, Jackie, who is about 13. They've been left behind at the farm for the last two days by their father, and they are understandably frightened of the approaching storm. They push their way into Walter's car, but then Jackie runs back to the farm to save his horse who is caught out in the field. Walter goes out to help him, the girl follows, but the horse runs away. Now the storm really is bearing down on the trio, so they have no choice but to run inside the house and shelter there.

The floodwaters from the storm begin rising, and start to come into the house. Walter and the two children move to the attic, and then eventually find themselves on the roof, which soon detaches from the house and becomes a raft. They spend the night on the roof, which washes up against a nearby hill by the next morning, when the storm has subsided. They make their way off the roof and find dozens of snakes which have taken shelter on the high ground as well. Walter and Jackie decide to start killing the snakes, but the story takes an even darker turn at this point, and it ends with a shocking and unsettling (and to me, completely unexpected) series of events.

I did not like this story. The writing was compelling and exquisite, as one might expect from a writer of Ms Oates' caliber. The story pulled me along at a rapid pace, and left me wanting to know what happened next. But the climax of the story came completely out of left field for me, and I felt like I suddenly didn't know what was going on, or like I had missed something. Perhaps that was the intended effect. Also, having lived through Hurricane Katrina almost 10 years ago, I found that the descriptions of the storm hit too uncomfortably close to home for me (although I was not stranded by floodwaters on a roof, thank goodness!). I also am pretty unfamiliar with Ms Oates' voluminous body of work, so I have nothing else to judge this story by -- maybe someone else can help out with a comparison in the comments.

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

TBR Double Dog Dare: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

My third book in the TBR Double Dog Dare (hosted by James at James Reads Books) was Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. I actually finished this a few weeks ago, but am just now getting around to writing about it.

Joe Hill is definitely taking his place as one of my new favorites writers. I STILL haven't seen the movie version of his book Horns, but I very much want to. And on the side I have recently been reading his comic book series Locke and Key which is also awesome. (Does that violate the TBR Double Dog Dare rules? Maybe so -- but James says exceptions are OK so I am making an exception for these comics. They are worth it!)

Heart-Shaped Box is a wildly inventive, page-turning story about Judas ("Jude") Coyne, an aging rocker who has a taste for the darker things in life. His music is dark, and he attracts young beautiful women who shack up with him for a while before he grows tired of them and kicks them out. He also collects oddities and occult items, so one day his assistant comes across an online auction that seems perfectly tailored for Jude (mainly because it IS tailored for him, we find out later in the story). It seems that the seller is offering a suit that belonged to her dead stepfather. It's basically a haunted suit -- the seller thinks the stepfather is linked to it somehow because it's the suit he wanted to be buried in but was not, so he is haunting the family as a result. Buy the suit and you're buying his ghost, is essentially the offer. The idea of buying a ghost to add to his collection is irresistible to Jude, so he buys it, not really thinking it is real, however.

Of course, there is a ghost connected with the suit. He begins to manifest pretty soon after arriving at Jude's house (in a heart-shaped box, no less -- hence the title of the book) and this ghost turns out to be a pretty nasty character. He turns out to be the ghost of Craddock McDermott, not only the stepfather of the seller of the suit, but also stepfather to her sister, who turns out to be one of Jude's cast-off girlfriends, Anna McDermott, who apparently returned home and killed herself. So the arrangement to get Craddock's ghost into Jude's "possession" was carefully calculated to end in the haunting and eventual death of Jude Coyne.

That alone would make for a pretty interesting and terrifying story, and Hill rocks along for a long while playing on that theme. Eventually, however, Jude uncovers a much darker secret behind Anna's death, which turns out not to be related to Jude at all. Then Jude embarks on a quest to find out the truth behind her death, and even enlists her help from beyond the grave to fight and "kill" Craddock's ghost.

It's a really fantastic story (in every sense of that word) and it's one of the best kind of horror stories. Jude goes through a genuine transformation as a result of the events of the story (maybe another layer to the symbolism of the heart-shaped box), and he genuinely regains his heart and his humanity by the end of the story. Although not in such a sappy way as I am making it sound (ha).

I highly recommend this story, and I am eager to read even more of Joe Hill's stuff.  He has a short-story collection that just might find its way into next year's Deal Me In challenge......

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 8: "We Didn't" by Stuart Dybek

Lordy, I have been in such a reading dry spell lately. It seems like the reading well has run dry. It's a chore to just read my weekly short story for Deal Me In, let alone keep plugging away on the TBR Double Dog Dare. I could blame it on the fact that things have been heating up at work, and I am entering what is turning out to be my busiest term of the school year. So when I get home, I have been wanting to escape, and that does not mean struggling with stories and books that may or may not reward the time I spend with them. Sigh. However, I can read and tell you about ONE story, surely?

This week the carte de la semaine (as opposed to the carte du jour -- why in the world I am suddenly lapsing into French I have NO idea) was the four of diamonds, which took me to the pages of The Best American Short Stories 1994. I thought the story for this week, "We Didn't," by Stuart Dybek, was actually pretty good.

It's the story of a gradual break-up between the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Julie. The narrator traces all the trouble back to one summer night on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the Gold Coast district of Chicago. He and Julie have spent all day together on the lake, and now they are ready to consummate their love under the stars -- that is, until the cops show up. But the cops are not actually there to bust them; they show up to retrieve the naked body of a young pregnant woman who drowned in the lake and, unbeknownst to the narrator and Julie, washed ashore close to where they decided to make out. Very awkward, to say the least.

This whole episode freaks Julie out, and the rest of the summer the thought of the dead young woman and her unborn child drives a wedge between the couple, and.... they don't actually ever end up having sex. (Hence the title of the story.) And they finally break up, all due to the dead woman.

This was a pretty interesting story. I had never read any of Dybek's stories before this one, but I would certainly be interested in reading some more of his stuff.

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 7: "Nicodemus Bluff" by Barry Hannah

I'm a little late with my short story review this week. This is actually last week's story. Too much job and not enough week, is my diagnosis of the problem. But better late than never! The card was the three of diamonds, and the story was a wholly underwhelming selection from The Best American Short Stories 1994.

"Nicodemus Bluff" by Barry Hannah is an odd little story that I didn't care for. To begin with, it was one of those stories that I honestly didn't know what was going on until at least halfway through the story. Sometimes that works as an effective technique, but in this story it just didn't.

The narrator, Harris, recounts a strange weekend at a deer camp with his father, Gomar, and some men that his father owed a great deal of money. Money that he didn't pay back. So it is that he and his father find themselves at the lodge and his father starts playing chess with a Mr. Pool, who owns the lodge and who is evidently one of his father's creditors. And this is no ordinary game of chess. For one thing, Gomar turns out to be a champion chess player. The chess games last long into the night and into the next two days. Finally Gomar wins, and the next thing we know, he and Pool are out in the woods and Pool is beating Harris' dad over the head with a pistol. He doesn't kill him, but Gomar dies not too long after that in an accident that sounds suspiciously like suicide, and the money he won keeps his family in high clover afterwards.

The title of the story comes from a Negro servant, Nicodemus, who worked for Mr. Pool at the lodge for many years. His ghost is supposed to haunt the nearby bluff, because he was shot by Pool. Granted, it was after he had been diagnosed with cancer, and he owed Pool more money than he could ever hope to pay back, and the story was that he asked Pool to shoot him. The story unsettles Harris, nonetheless, and it somehow provides a backdrop to the events of the story.

Is this a story of redemption, in which Gomar succeeds in overcoming his debt (although the strain of it seems to exact a toll on him anyway) whereas Nicodemus failed in overcoming his? I have no idea. It was one of the strangest stories I have read in a long time, and even though Hannah hailed from Meridian, Mississippi, a small town not too terribly far from where I live, and even though he won many awards during his life, he doesn't strike me as in the same league with some of the other more famous writers from Mississippi, or even from the South in general. I will probably give him another chance sometime, but it won't be anytime soon. Does anyone else have any insight into Hannah's work? Please comment!

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 6: "Star Food" by Ethan Canin

For some reason I cannot get out of the clubs. The suit of clubs in my deck of cards for Deal Me In, that is. This week I drew the 10 of clubs, which took me back to The Best American Short Stories 1986 for an intriguing story by Ethan Canin.

This very cool image of a 10 of clubs comes from where they have many more interesting cards!

This is the first of Ethan Canin's writing that I have read. I knew of him, however, due to a book called The Writer's Notebook, a fascinating little book that consists of reproduced pages from -- you guessed it -- writers' notebooks. It provides an intriguing look into the creative process as illustrated (literally, in some cases) by the notebooks that writers keep.

Canin has a chapter in this book, and some of his notebook pages turned out to be hospital note pages. Turns out that he pursued medicine as a career for a number of years. But his was not a direct path to medicine -- he first received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then a few years after that he went to Harvard Medical School and got his M.D. He practiced as a physician for seven years while still writing (as evidenced by his notebook) before leaving medicine to join the writing faculty back at Iowa. An interesting journey indeed! If you've read any of his books or other short stories, please tell me more about them in the comments.

Now to this week's story, "Star Food." To be honest, this was one of those stories that limped along for a little while, one word plodding after another, until suddenly it caught fire with me and I raced to finish it. Weird, huh? And I'm not sure I got everything out of the story that is there for the getting, but it's certainly a rich story that would be worth the rereading just to gain new insights on it.

The story is told from the point of view of Dade, an 18-year-old boy who works in his parents' grocery store, Star Food. From the first sentence of the story -- "The summer I turned eighteen I disappointed both my parents for the first time" -- it's clear that this story is going to be complex. Up until this time, Dade has either disappointed his father, who thinks he is lazy and aimless, or his mother, who thinks Dade should spend more time up on the roof of the store (which he does anyway), looking into the clouds and waiting for inspiration so he can do something great with his life.

One day Dade notices a woman who comes into the store and casually steals a loaf of rye bread. He can't believe what he's seeing, and doesn't say anything to his parents until she's long gone. She steals twice more from the store before Dade decides he's going to finally apprehend her, making his father happy and his mother not so happy (since she has previously been guilty of letting other shoplifters, usually children, get away out the back door of the store).  When Dade does catch the woman, he suddenly wonders if it was such a good idea, and you can probably figure out what happens next.

Plot-wise, this was not a terribly exciting story, but it was incredibly atmospheric and the characters were compelling. I enjoyed reading it, and will be looking for more by Mr. Canin.

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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 5: "Telling" by Grace Paley

My card this week was the 5 of clubs, and it selected for me a very intriguing story by Grace Paley, an author with whom I was previously unfamiliar. Not only is "Telling" intriguing, it's also touching and shows transformation of a kind in the protagonist, an essential component of any story as far as I'm concerned.

The story is told from the point of view of "Iz" Zagrowsky, an elderly man watching his grandson Emanuel in the park one day. He's a retired pharmacist, and he is suddenly approached by one of his former customers, Faith, who comes over to talk to him. (In my research on Paley, I found it interesting that Faith is a character who appears in several of her stories.) She recognizes him, certainly, but she's drawn to talk to him because of two other reasons: 1) Emanuel is black, and she's wondering what Iz is doing with a black child in the park, and 2) she wants to know whatever happened to Iz's daughter Cissy, who turns out to be Emanuel's mother. And therein lies a tale, as they say.

Unfortunately, Iz recognizes Faith as well -- she was part of a group of women who turned against him due to perceived racist and sexist activity on his part back in the day, and they ended up picketing his pharmacy. Iz admits to himself that he didn't like the way the neighborhood around his pharmacy was changing, but his racist activity amounted to waiting on his established customers first, while letting the new customers (black and Hispanic individuals sent into the store as a "test" for Iz) wait to be served longer than they thought they should be. So of course he feels somewhat betrayed by people whom he thought were his loyal customers.

On top of all that, Iz's daughter Cissy, whom it turns out was mentally unstable, is set off by the picket lines and begins to picket as well. She also curses at her parents and sings selections from Messiah outside the pharmacy. So they send her off to a mental hospital. There, she suddenly becomes pregnant, and it turns out she's carrying the child of one of the black gardeners. Iz's eventual acceptance and embrace of this event in the form of helping care for his grandson completes his transformation I mentioned earlier.

The title of the story (something that always seems to fascinate me) comes from Iz's need to tell this woman the things she doesn't know but which she needs to know, in his opinion. This passage in particular speaks to that theme:

Then I thought, Calm down Zagrowsky. Because for a fact I didn't want her to leave, because, since I already began to tell I have to tell the whole story. I'm not a person who keeps things in. Tell! That opens up the congestion a little -- the lungs are for breathing, not secrets. My wife never tells, she coughs, coughs. All night. Wakes up. Ai Iz open the window there's no air. You poor woman, if you want to breathe, you got to tell.

This was an excellent story, well worth the read. I selected it from The Best American Short Stories 1986 volume, and it was originally published in Mother Jones.

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