Jeffrey Ford: The Drowned Life

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 3

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Hatch floated down the long empty avenues of Drowned Town, a shabby but quiet city in a lime green sea. Every so often, he’d pass one of the citizens, bloated and blue in various stages of decomposition, and say, “Hi.”

One might call Jeffrey Ford’s short story “The Drowned Life” surreal. At the same time, the term surreal in some way implies that there is no “real” meaning behind a story or behind a plot. This is not the case with “The Drowned Life”. In fact, Ford tells us early on that a literal shark represents “Financial Ruin” and then proceeds to call the shark Financial Ruin for the rest of the story.

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As the protagonist, Hatch, attempts to “keep his head above water” both literally and figuratively (or maybe neither, I don’t know?), he finally gives up bailing and lets himself drown – as Financial Ruin swims around him.

While Hatch explores Drowned Town, he worries about his wife and sons and attempts to get back to dry land. Drowned Town is filled with both the macabre and the hilarious – which gives Ford kudos at least by my standards. It’s great when an author can make something genuinely scary and genuinely funny.

I think what could technically be considered surreal are the bizarre images of fish-like creatures and half-decayed human beings – both of which interact with Hatch though not necessarily in Hatch’s best interest.

I have a hard time thinking this story will be a favorite by the end of the year, but it’s my favorite one of the three I’ve read so far.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the King of Hearts for Week 3 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

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Edmund White: Give It Up For Billy

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 2

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In Edmund White’s short story “Give It Up For Billy”, Harold vacations to Key West amidst a pervasive feeling of alienation and loneliness. Is this feeling because he is gay? Possibly. Could it be because he is turning 64? Probably. Is it because he’s just plain human? Yeah, that could be it, too.

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White develops Harold into a character that might not be exactly likable but he is definitely relatable  regardless of whether one is gay, straight, old, young, male, female. Harold feels like those closest to him are using him. In spite of his professorship at Princeton, he questions if he has been successful or if what he has accomplished matters.

Does White allow Harold to realize answers to his questions? Maybe. But any story coming close to realism as it grapples with existential issues isn’t going to be definite about the answers:

A small, peevish voice somewhere inside of him said, “See? He was just using you and everyone else.” But then Harold smiled, pleased at the simplifying form things had taken.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Three of Clubs for Week 2 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Stuck in the middle of Middlemarch

Occasionally I come across books that I try to read and then come to the conclusion that life is too short for me to spend so much time to get through a specific book. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is NOT one of those books; however, given how long it’s taking me to read it, anyone might think it should be in this category.

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I can make the excuse that I started reading it just as my busy season at work began. Next time, I won’t try to read a book of this magnitude during this time of year. But I do plan on finishing it.

I’m right in the middle of the novel, now. The depth of character and Eliot’s ability to paint so much of the human condition into a small provincial town amazes me. Dorothea Brooke appears to be the protagonist among a large variety of people. And the main plot twist at the moment seems to be the reading of a will – something that rarely fails to intrigue.

Have you read Middlemarch? How long did it take you and what was your experience with the novel? What books have you not been able to finish that everyone else seems to like?

Wendell Berry: The Wild Birds

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 1

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“It’s wayward, Wheeler. I knowed you’d say what you’ve said. Or anyhow think it. I know it seems wayward to you. But wayward is the way it is. And always has been. The way a place in this world is passed on in time is not regular or plain, Wheeler. It goes pretty close to accidental. But how else could it go? Neither a deed or a will, no writing at all can tell you much about it. Even when it looks regular and plain, you know that somewhere it has been chancy, and just slipped by.”

In Wendell Berry’s short story “The Wild Birds”, Burley Coulter is an old man seeing Wheeler Catlett to draw up a will – a will that leaves his farm to his son Danny Branch who was born out of wedlock to Kate Helen Branch. Burley has treated Danny as a son but never married Kate Helen who has already died.

This is one of Wendell Berry’s stories in which it’s helpful to have read his other works involving the small Kentucky town of Port William. The circumstances between Burley, Kate Helen and Danny are well-known to the rest of the community and there is an interesting on-going tension. Nobody really outright condemns Burley or Kate Helen and in many cases treat all three as family – not just to each other but to the community as a whole. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t unspoken thoughts and judgments that have lingered for years and that’s the case with Wheeler Catlett, Burley’s lawyer.

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The lengthy but touching conversation that takes place in Wheeler’s office occurs with Burley’s relatives who would most likely inherit his farm if a will was not perpared. They are on Burley’s side as they already have a farm – and don’t need more.

Berry movingly brings the conversation to a realization on the part of both men that the underlying hurt doesn’t need to go on. Much of the conversation involves stories and memories of when the men were younger and ultimately the need for forgiveness emerges. A forgiveness that both men willingly give and accept:

The office is crowded now with all that they have loved, the living remembered, the dead brought back to mind, and a gentle, forceless light seems to have come with them. There in the plain, penumbral old room, that light gathers the four of them into its shadowless embrace. For a time without speaking they sit together in it.

This story is included in Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories That Distant Land. I read it when I selected the Ten of Diamonds for Week 1 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Anniversary #7!

It’s the seventh anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and as I have been doing the last few years, here are my top ten favorite short stories of 2018 with quotations from each of them. I have no method of rating them – they are just the ones I liked the best. And as happens with many of my top ten lists, the top two could be interchangeable on any given day depending on my mood – both of them are fantastic stories!

10. Lions, Harts, Leaping Does – J. F. Powers

He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, fiery-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century:”Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”

9.  The Little Regiment – Stephen Crane

Ultimately the night deepened to the tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the shine of a button, might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant thing – the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

8.  Faith – William Trevor

Afterwards, Bartholomew told himself that what had occurred must surely be no more than a mood of petulance, an eruption from his half-stifled impatience with the embroidery and frills that dressed the simplicity of truth with invasive, sentimental stories that somehow made faith easier, the hymns he hated. For Bartholomew, the mystery that was the source of all spiritual belief, present through catastrophe and plague and evil, was a strength now too, and more than it had ever been. Yet there was disquiet, a stirring in his vocation he had brought upon himself and wished he had not…Bartholomew – not knowing what he should otherwise do – continued to visit the lonely and the sick, to repeat the Te Deum, the Creed, the Litany. He felt he should not and yet he did.

7.  The Virgin’s Gift – William Trevor

He begged that his melancholy might be lifted, that the confusion which had come in the night might be lightened with revelation. These were the days of the year when his spirits were most joyful, when each hour that passed brought closer the celebration of the Saviour’s birth. Why had this honoring of a season been so brutally upset?

6.  Graillis’s Legacy – William Trevor

His safe employment had been taken for granted; in time promotion would mean occupancy of a squat grey landmark in the town, the house above the bank, with railings and a grained hall door. She had married into that; books had never been an interest they shared, had never been, for her, a need.

The woman for whom they were had often been noticed by Graillis about the town, coming out of a shop, getting into her car, not the kind of woman he would ever have known.

5.  Death of a Right Fielder – Stuart Dybek

Finally we saw him; from a distance he resembled the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.

4.  The Reach – Stephen King

“We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.

“No, I’ve never felt I needed to leave the island. My life was here. The Reach was wider in those days.”

3.  Resurrection of a Life – William Saroyan

I was this boy and he is dead now, but he will be prowling through the city when my body no longer makes a shadow upon the pavement, and if it is not this boy it will be another, myself again, another boy alive on earth, seeking the essential truth of the scene, seeking the static and precise beneath that which is in motion and which is imprecise.

2.  The School – Donald Barthelme

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical-fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

1.  My Son the Murderer – Bernard Malamud

At night I watch the news programs. I watch the war from day to day. It’s a big burning war on a small screen. It rains bombs and the flames go higher. Sometimes I lean over and touch the war with the flat of my hand. I wait for my hand to die.

William Trevor: The Virgin’s Gift (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 52)

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He begged that his melancholy might be lifted, that the confusion which had come in the night might be lightened with revelation. These were the days of the year when his spirits were most joyful, when each hour that passed brought closer the celebration of the Saviour’s birth. Why had this honoring of a season been so brutally upset?

During his 59 years, Michael, in William Trevor’s short story “The Virgin’s Gift”, has been visited by the Virgin Mary three times in dreams. For the first time, he was a young man and she called him away from his parents and their farm to the abbey to become a monk. For the second time, he was called away from his abbey to solitude on an island off the coast of Ireland. It’s a solitude he grows to love:

Such entanglements of truth and falsity – and of good and evil, God and the devil – Michael dwelt upon in the hermitage he had created, while the seasons changed and the days of his life one by one extinguished.

For a third and final time, Michael is called away from a place in which he has grown comfortable. He doesn’t understand but finds some comfort by comparing his own journey of confusion to the Virgin Mary’s in the Christmas story.

His journey only makes sense at the end of it.

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Merry Christmas everyone! I usually include a Christmas story in my Deal Me In list just for the fun of seeing when it shows up. Because I forgot to do that for 2018, I decided that I would choose one for my final Wild Card thinking that it would fall somewhere close to the end of the year. But the Deal Me In fates saved it for the very last week so I’m able to actually post it on Christmas Day! “The Virgin’s Gift” is included in William Trevor: Selected Stories. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Deal Me In 2019 is here!

It’s time for Deal Me In 2019 and here is my list of stories I plan on reading for the upcoming year. Deal Me In is hosted each year by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This is the seventh year in a row that I’ve participated and I have to say that it’s been one of the most enriching reading experiences in which I’ve had the pleasure of participating.

This year, my list will finish two anthologies I started a few years ago: The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Stories from other sources are included as well.

I’m looking forward to continuing this tradition with other book bloggers, so feel free to join in the fun!