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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 11: "Things Left Undone" by Christopher Tilghman


It's the Jack of diamonds this week, and along with it came a very moving and thought-provoking story by Christopher Tilghman, first published in The Southern Review and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1994. The title of the story comes from the general confession of sin that is probably as old as the Anglican Church, at least:

Almighty and most merciful Father,
We have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things that we ought to have done;
And we have done those things that we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

The story is about a young couple, Denny and Susan McCready, and it begins on the day that their son Charlie is born. Denny walks out and stands on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay to watch the sun coming up, but he doesn't feel the sense of majesty and awe that he thought he would feel at such a moment. This, unfortunately, becomes a foreshadowing of the overall tone of the events he and his family are about to experience. Before the day is out, Denny learns that his son has cystic fibrosis. And in just a few years, and within the first couple of pages of the story, Charlie succumbs to the disease. At this point the stage is set for the rest of the story:

Back when Charlie was still a newborn, when the first untroubled and unknowing smiles began to appear, Denny prayed that this could all happen quickly, before he gave too much of his love, before he surrendered too much of his hope. It took almost to the end of Charlie's life for Denny to realize that this prayer was monstrous, that he had asked for an end of his own pain in the place of a cure for his son. Susan would make him pay for this. But by then Denny had also learned that of all the pain a human can endure, not allowing oneself to feel love is the worst; that denying love to oneself can destroy, from the inside.

Charlie's death devastates not only Denny and Susan, but their marriage as well. They drift apart, both of them becoming absorbed in their work, and Susan begins seeing someone else. She moves out, and Denny keeps working away on his farm.

One day, however, he has an idea to buy a boat, a pretty radical move for someone who has been a landlubber all his life and is somewhat distrustful of the water. He buys a fixer-upper and gets it back in shape. He's glad to have something to occupy his hands and mind, and after several weeks of working on the boat, Susan suddenly shows back up. They're timid with each other and unsure of where they stand, but they gradually relearn how to talk to each other and be a couple. And throughout, the language of faith and love and transformation and redemption flows through the story and gives a kind of benediction over the events in Denny and Susan's lives:

"I sometimes think all of us out here just gave up a little early," she said.

"Speak for yourself," he said, but it wasn't said harshly. It was more of an absolution than a retort.

Even though this was quite a long short story, I enjoyed it immensely and it gave me a lot to think about.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

TBR Double Dog Dare: Pandora by Anne Rice

My fourth book in the TBR Double Dog Dare (hosted by James at James Reads Books) was Pandora, by Anne Rice - one of her Vampire Chronicles books. I am largely unfamiliar with Rice's vampire mythology, but all through this book it was clear that the events fit into the larger saga of Lestat the vampire and his colleagues.

So why this book? Well, true to the spirit of the TBR Double Dog Dare, this book has been sitting on my library shelves for quite some time, and needed to be read. This was a signed first edition of the book that I obtained many years ago (I suppose in 1998, when the novel was first published). I got it as part of a book club run by a local independent bookstore which is now sadly defunct. The deal was, you signed up for this club and then every month or so you would get a signed first edition of a novel that had just been published. I think they must have gotten the copies via some kind of deal with another bookstore, because none (or few) of these authors ever came to Hattiesburg for a booksigning, I'm pretty sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it got kind of pricey after a while so I stopped. However, I have this book, and a signed John Grisham (The Street Lawyer), and a few other choice library additions to show for my brief membership in the club.

Come to think of it, I have another signed copy of an Anne Rice book in my library -- Memnoch the Devil. The events of that book are also referenced in Pandora, as it turns out. I obtained this copy by an even more circuitous route. Soon after I started teaching in 1994, one day I discovered in casual conversation with one of my students that she was related to Anne Rice in some way-- I think she was married to one of Anne's cousins or something. The student suddenly asked me if I wanted a signed copy of her latest book, I said sure, why not? -- and so I have this copy of Memnoch with an inscription that is not personal (alas) but still very interesting:

So what is the point, beside a gratuitous photo of a book from my collection? All of this is to say that I am sure I did not get everything out of Pandora that a true vampire/Anne Rice aficionado would have gotten out of it, because these are the only two books in the series that I have read, and have read them completely out of context at that -- BUT Pandora was a pretty good read nonetheless.

The story opens as Pandora, one of the vampires living in modern-day Paris, sits down to write her life story. She was born Lydia in Rome in 15 B.C., and took the name "Pandora" after she was forced to flee to Antioch as a young woman. She was a member of a politically important family, with a father who was a Senator and well-connected relations and friends all around. She is brought up with every advantage, and as a young girl she meets a handsome young man named Marius. Their destinies are intertwined from the start; many years later, in Antioch, she encounters Marius again after he has become a vampire, and he turns out to be instrumental in making her into one as well.

What is in between their two pivotal encounters is the bulk of the story, as Pandora flees Rome after a coup upsets the government and all the allegiances (including her father's and family's position). She makes her way to Antioch, one of the great cities of the ancient world, and there becomes involved in the temple of Isis, which turns out to be Vampire Central. Undoubtedly this part of the story would be much more engrossing to a reader familiar with the many references that Rice inserts here, to characters and events from other books in the series.

However, this book surprisingly turns out to stand pretty well on its own. Rice is a good writer, and does an excellent job of immersing the reader in all the details of the time and setting, without ever coming across as pedantic or labored. She makes the story come alive, which pushes the reader along very nicely -- I know that she sucked me into the story and I was soon just reading to find out what happened next, the mark of every good story. It also doesn't hurt that I knew I was reading about a person who becomes a vampire, so at some point there was going to be a "payoff" where the person actually goes through that process -- and I kept wondering how it was going to happen.

This book is worth your while, but doubly or triply so if you are one of the legion of vampire fans.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 10: "Three Thousand Dollars" by David Lipsky

Some of my most favorite stories and novels are those in which nothing very momentous happens, but all the drama and interest are evoked in the interactions between the characters, and in how those relationships play out. That's not to say I don't enjoy a good action-packed story as well, but the interior drama typically speaks to me much more powerfully. That's the main reason I liked this story, first published in the New Yorker, anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1986, and served up to me by the 6 of clubs from the Deal Me In deck

Richard is home from college for the summer, and he has a problem. He owes the college $3000, which he could have paid at the beginning of the year, but instead he frittered it away and now has no way to pay it. His tuition is generally paid for by his father -- his divorced parents cooked up a scheme whereby Richard's financial aid need would be determined by his mother's salary (that of a grade-school art teacher) and not by his father's (that of a high-powered ad executive). Then his father would pay his part of the tuition directly to Richard, who would then turn around and pay it to the school. Except this time, he didn't.

Richard's father knows what happened, and he is urging Richard to tell his mother. In the meantime, he refuses to pay any more money, and tells Richard to go get a job and sit out the next year until he can pay the college the money he owes. Richard, of course, cannot bring himself to tell his mother, and so begins a tense waiting game in which he's sure she'll find out, talk to his father, etc. He's paranoid about it, and this drives the story forward.

The story ends with Richard and his mother attending a fourth of July celebration in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she has taken a summer job at her old school to help pay Richard's college bill so he can return to school in the fall. He's guilty about this, and about not telling his mother the real reason he owes the money, but even on the ride home, when she tells him pointblank that he can tell her everything, he doesn't manage to tell her.

Like I said, it's not a thrilling story event-wise (you're probably yawning right now) but the interactions between the characters -- what they say and what they don't say to each other -- are fascinating, and they turn this little tale into a highly entertaining and thought-provoking story. I enjoyed it immensely.

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