Tuesday, January 31, 2017

DMI2017, Week 3: "A Proper Santa Claus" by Anne McCaffrey

The story this week is brought to you by the Six of Diamonds, from the collection Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.

To my knowledge, I have never read anything else by Anne McCaffrey. I knew of her, however, because she was famous for her Dragonriders of Pern series. She was a notable author in both the science fiction and fantasy realms, winning awards in both. Based on this story, "A Proper Santa Claus," I believe I would enjoy reading more of her work.

The story opens with Jeremy North, a six-year-old boy, fingerpainting in his room. He's painting a cookie on his art paper, and when he gets it just like he wants it, he picks the cookie out of the paper and eats it. The cookie makes him thirsty, so he also paints a glass of Coke and then drinks it. It's flat, however, because he couldn't figure out how to properly paint the bubbles.

The reader quickly realizes that Jeremy is not just pretending here. He has the ability to paint things and have them exist in the real world. These objects come to life because Jeremy "sees" them as "proper." If he doesn't "see" them, or if other people can't see them in the same way he does, then they remain lifeless. On one occasion Jeremy paints a car for his father. It's one that he says he wants, so Jeremy is excited at the prospect of giving his father this car. But on the way to show his father the car, the paint gets smudged, and his father can't tell that it's a painting of his car. So that painting remains lifeless, much to Jeremy's disappointment.

The story follows Jeremy's budding artistry as he experiments with pastels and other artist's mediums. He finally graduates to three-dimensional art, experimenting with butter and mud (neither of which pleases his mother). He tries Play-Doh but his creations get frozen in place as the compound hardens in the air. Finally, his teacher introduces him to plasticine, and as it's close to Christmas when this happens, Jeremy decides to create a "proper" Santa Claus complete with sleigh and reindeer. This Santa also has a bag filled with pictures of presents clipped from all manner of mail-order catalogs. Jeremy's idea is that this "proper" Santa Claus will come to life and bring him all the presents he would ever want. His teacher has other ideas about what makes a proper Santa Claus, however, which leads to the conclusion of the story.

This is a wonderful, if somewhat bittersweet, story about a young boy's active imagination and its death at the hands of grownups who long ago forgot how to make things "proper." Children have an ability to see past an item's flaws and imperfections, and bestow upon it qualities of being real. Upon reflection, this story reminded me of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit and its journey to "real." Like that story, it leaves the reader a little sad at the end, but it's definitely worth 5 stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, January 30, 2017

DMI2017, Week 2: "Prince Bull" by Charles Dickens

The Ace of Diamonds takes us into our first foray into the science fiction/fantasy category with a story by an author one would not expect to find here: Charles Dickens. The editor of the anthology points out that A Christmas Carol counts essentially as a fantasy story, however, so I suppose it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see Dickens in such a collection.

"Prince Bull" is more of an allegory, although Dickens subtitles it as "a fairy tale," and the story does indeed begin with the words "Once upon a time...." The title refers to the main character of the story, a figure who represents John Bull, himself a type of allegorical, or at least metaphorical, character. Just as we Americans have our "Uncle Sam," the British have their "John Bull," a personification of Great Britain who dates back to the 1700s.

In this story Prince Bull is beset on all sides by an evil fairy godmother named Tape. She's colored red, so she is a relatively heavy-handed personification of the concept of "red tape" and bureaucracy. Her magical power is that she can stop any kind of idea or innovation by simply laying her hand on it and saying, "Tape." This has the effect of either squelching the idea or sending it off to some other country, which then profits from it, all to the detriment of Prince Bull and his kingdom. Tape even interferes with the Prince's preparations for war.

This was such a strange little story that there's honestly not much to say about it. It was Dickens, of course, whose style is unmistakeable and always a pleasure to read, but the story left me cold. I have an idea that it would have had way more impact when it was written than it does now, although we still live very much with the fact and the consequences of red tape. And maybe that's the point, since at the end of the story the prince remains firmly in the clutches of Tape and has no prospect of getting out.

I'm afraid this story gets only 3 stars from me, and if it were written by anyone other than Dickens, it would probably get only 1 star. I can't really recommend it. Still, it might be worth looking up if only for the historical angle and oddity of the story.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

DMI2017, Week 1: "The Little Green God of Agony" by Stephen King

This story, chosen for me by the Jack of spades, appears in the recent collection of Stephen King's stories entitled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. And let me tell you, it is classic Stephen King. It's a testament to the fact that, no matter what his literary ups and downs may have been over the years, he very much still has "it." In fact, while I was reading this story I noticed that my heart had started racing and my breathing had sped up -- it was that suspenseful and so effortlessly had sucked me in.

The story opens as Katherine MacDonald, a private nurse, is tending to her patient, Andrew Newsome, who just happens to be the sixth-richest man in the world. He also happens to be a bed-ridden invalid recovering from a plane crash and who is never going to get any better despite the daily physical therapy Katherine ("Kat" for short) tries to give him. I say "tries" because Newsome is, in Kat's eyes, a big baby who can't tolerate the slightest bit of pain, and certainly not the monumental amounts of pain that such physical therapy requires to make any kind of progress back to normal functioning of muscles and legs and such. (In the introduction to this story, King notes that he was inspired by his own painful recuperation after the 1999 accident in which he was almost killed by a motorist.)

Even though Kat thinks Newsome is the ultimate wimp, she dares not say anything along these lines to her rich and powerful employer, because she's sure he would fire her on the spot. So she keeps her mouth shut as Newsome relates the details of his accident and then worldwide (yet fruitless) search for someone to help him relieve the pain he is in, and finally get better. He's telling all this to a visitor, a faith healer by the name of Rideout. Kat has seen his kind before, she thinks, and he's just another con artist to her. As the story turns out, of course, she is very much mistaken.

Rideout patiently and silently listens to Newsome's tale, and then pronounces his diagnosis and remedy. In his expert opinion, Newsome is possessed by a demon, a "little green god of agony" who has infested his body and is happily feeding on, and amplifying, his pain. He offers to expel the demon in return for just enough money to rebuild his church, which has recently been destroyed in a fire. This surprises Newsome, who is rich (and desperate) enough to give Rideout any amount of money he asks for if he succeeds, but he happily agrees to the request and consents to the exorcism.

NOT the "little green god of agony"

And this is where Kat completely loses it. She gets in Newsome's face and finally tells him off, in no uncertain terms. She tells him exactly what she thinks about this situation, and tells him he is never going to get any better unless he starts biting the bullet in terms of his therapy. Newsome fires her immediately, of course, but Rideout intervenes, saying that if Kat goes, then he goes as well. He welcomes her unbelief, as it turns out, and is eager to show her how wrong she is. He confronts her as a burned-out caregiver who no longer has the empathy necessary to care for her patients and appreciate their pain, and he's ready to give her a lesson in "humility," as he puts it.

Without giving away any more of the story, suffice it to say that, since this is a Stephen King story, Rideout is  right -- there IS a "little green god of agony" inside Newsome and Kat does get her lesson in humility, as well as a lesson in terror. The story has a nice, Stephen King-like ending as well, if you know what I mean.

I would give this story 5 stars (I think I'll try a rating system this time around) and I recommend it highly as a fast, fun read. It was a great start to my Deal Me In journey this year.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Deal Me In 2017 -- My Reading List

Back in 2014 and 2015, I started following the Deal Me In short story reading plan as championed by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. I got about halfway through 2015 before life got in the way and I lost interest.

However, this year I have mysteriously regained interest, even though life is even MORE in the way this time, if that's possible. But I am still attracted to the challenge.

So I am hereby presenting my Deal Me In reading list for 2017. This time around, I am taking a leaf from Jay's book to help create my reading list. Last year he arranged his Deal Me In list to include only stories with an Indiana connection, in honor of that state's bicentennial. Well, 2017 is Mississippi's bicentennial year, and while I am not a native, I have lived here for 23 years so that should count for something, I suppose. And while I am not industrious enough to devote my entire deck of cards/stories to the state, I think I should dedicate at least one or two of the suits to stories by Mississippi authors, or stories with a Mississippi flavor or setting. If there's one enduring heritage of the state, it is its literary heritage. The other suits will have a bit of creativity in them as well, perhaps.Some of the stories were chosen because I was already familiar with the writer's other work, and some of the stories were chosen on the basis of their irresistible titles.

So, the four suits for this year's reading are assigned as follows:

Spades: Stephen King old and new (chosen from his anthologies Night Shift [old] and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams [new])
Diamonds: science fiction and fantasy (chosen from Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder, edited by David Hartwell; and Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden)
Hearts: stories by Mississippi authors (various sources)
Clubs: mystery/detective stories set in Mississippi (chosen from Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin)

And here are the stories:


Spades (Stephen King old and new -- Ace through 7 are from Night Shift, and 8 through King are from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams):
Ace: "The Boogeyman" (Week 8)
2: "Jerusalem's Lot" (Week 18)
3: "Gray Matter"
4: "The Lawnmower Man"
5: "Children of the Corn" (Week 10)
6: "Quitters, Inc." (Week 26)
7: "The Ledge"
8: "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation"
9: "Mister Yummy"
10: "Cookie Jar"
Jack: "The Little Green God of Agony" (Week 1)
Queen: "Morality" (Week 5)
King: "The Bone Church"


Diamonds (science fiction/fantasy):
Ace: "Prince Bull" by Charles Dickens (Week 2)
2: "The Triumph of Vice" by W.S. Gilbert (Week 7)
3: "Darkness Box" by Ursula K. LeGuin (Week 15)
4: "On the Downhill Side" by Harlan Ellison
5: "Lila the Werewolf" by Peter S. Beagle (Week 4)
6: "A Proper Santa Claus" by Anne McCaffrey (Week 3)
7: "The Calculus Plague" by Marissa Lingen
8: "Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Week 13)
9: "The Education of Junior Number 12" by Madeline Ashby
10: "Chicken Little" by Cory Doctorow (Week 14)
Jack: "Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction" by Jo Walton (Week 19)
Queen: "How to Become a Mars Overlord" by Catherynne M. Valente (Week 23)
King: "Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert (Week 6)

Hearts (Mississippi authors, with Faulkner, Welty, and Spencer each getting a double dip):
Ace: "The Tall Men" by William Faulkner
2: "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty (Week 21)
3: "One-Man Band" by Lewis Nordan
4: "On the Hill" by Elizabeth Spencer (Week 25)
5: "Man of All Work" by Richard Wright (Week 20)
6: "Garter Snake" by Donna Tartt
7: "The Apprentice" by Larry Brown (Week 22)
8: "Charity" by Richard Ford
9: "I Just Love Carrie Lee" by Ellen Douglas
10: "A Southern Landscape" by Elizabeth Spencer (Week 12)
Jack: "Uncle High Lonesome" by Barry Hannah
Queen: "Circe" by Eudora Welty (Week 16)
King: "Mountain Victory" by William Faulkner

Clubs (mystery/detective set in Mississippi):
Ace: "Losing Her Religion" by RaShell R. Smith-Spears
2: "Oxford Girl" by Megan Abbott
3: "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" by William Boyle (Week 9)
4: "Cheap Suitcase and a New Town" by Chris Offutt
5: "God's Gonna Trouble the Water" by Dominiqua Dickey (Week 11)
6: "Moonface" by Andrew Paul
7: "Pit Stop" by John M. Floyd
8: "Hero" by Michael Farris Smith
9: "Jerry Lewis" by Jack Pendarvis
10: "My Dear, My One True Love" by Lee Durkee (Week 24)
Jack: "Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling" by Jaime Paige
Queen: "Combustible" by Ace Atkins (Week 17)
King: "Uphill" by Mary Miller

I hope my lists intrigue you, and I hope I get through the entire list this year!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Watch this space...

Is there such a thing as a "reading itch"? Because if there is, I think I have come down with a bad case of it again. January is not too far gone, so I think I will scratch it with a prescription for "Deal Me In" 2017. More to come very soon.....