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.