Tobias Wolff: The Rich Brother (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 39)

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Pete tried to forget the letter. But of course he couldn’t. Each time he thought of it he felt crowded and breathless, a feeling that came over him again when he drove into the service station and saw Donald sitting against a wall with his head on his knees. It was late afternoon. A paper cup tumbled slowly past Donald’s feet, pushed by the damp wind.

Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Rich Brother” is the second story in a row that I’ve read involving a car trip. I read it this week when I selected the Three of Clubs for Week 39 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. “The Rich Brother” is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp.

The Best American Catholic Short Stories: A Sheed & Ward Collection

Donald dabbles in various religions as a young man eventually converting to Christianity and living in a small community of those with the same beliefs. Donald gets thrown out of this community when he begins giving away all of its food, clothing and money to people who supposedly need it.

Donald’s older and richer brother, Pete, picks him up to take him to his home and lends him $100 cash. On the way, they pick up a stranger with what seems like a sob story about a sick daughter. Guess what Donald does? When Pete isn’t looking, he gives the stranger the $100 before dropping him off at his destination. Much to the dismay of Pete, of course.

Something about this story reminds me of the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son; however, in this case, the word “prodigal” would be the original meaning of the word – the opposite of “frugal” as opposed to the manner in which prodigal is used to mean “wayward”, now. Is Donald’s prodigality foolishness or gererosity? That’s the question that Wolff never quite answers.

I found amazing Wolff’s ability to not cast sympathy on just one of the brothers but on both of them. Even though these two men are on opposite ends of a spectrum, I couldn’t help but like both of them.

Wolff also didn’t give the brother’s relationship any type of resolution in the story. I get the impression that Donald will go on giving things away and Pete will go on bailing him out.

 

Paul Horgan: The Peach Stone (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 38)

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I don’t think I’ve read a short story in which an author has managed so well to tell it from multiple points of view as Paul Horgan’s “The Peach Stone”. The story consists of a four hour car ride from Roswell, New Mexico to the small town of Weed, Texas. The car ride is the result of a tragedy occuring in the lives of the four people traveling.

It’s difficult to remember that nobody in the car is actually talking for the majority of the trip. Because we read the thoughts of the married couple, their young son and his teacher and because these thoughts are not necessarily in rigid order, it seems like the car should be a buzz with chatter. It’s also difficult to say who the protagonist would be in the story. It could very easily be any of them. While I was reading, I thought of the wife as the “main” protagonist but someone else reading the story could think that title should belong to one of the others.

Much of the riders’ thoughts revolve around the tragedy that’s forced them to make the trip. For varying reasons, they all are dealing with much guilt and anguish. While one of the travelers eventually “opens up” as they reach their destination, I wondered while I was reading whether redemption or resolution would be found.

Perhaps it was-

Jodey then felt that she had returned to them all; and he stopped seeing, and just remembered, what happened yesterday; and his love for his wife was confirmed as something he would never be able to measure for himself or prove to her in words.

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This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I selected it to read by drawing the Ace of Clubs for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

The First Half of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future – though not unmingled with foreboding fears. Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; my hopes diminished, but not departed; my fears increased, but not yet thoroughly confirmed…

Usually when I post about a book half way through, it’s because it’s either exceptionally long (like War and Peace) or it’s taking exceptionally long for me to read it. The latter is the case with Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I confess I had not heard of Anne Bronte until I started reading her sisters’ novels. I have no idea whether she felt left out in the Bronte family but I didn’t want to do that a century and a half later.

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The first part of the novel is told in the form of letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend in which he describes his involvement with the mysterious Helen Graham, his neighbor and the novel’s title character.  Gilbert and Helen are both fascinating characters. Helen is the more intriguing simply because we know so little about her. We know she seems to have been hurt by someone and has a maturity beyond her years. The fact that she is making a living as an artist in a society where women didn’t make a living outside of marriage makes her even more interesting.

I also find Gilbert a great narrator as one who will defend Helen to the utmost without giving one iota about what his community thinks. Granted, it’s not difficult to determine that there are things about Helen of which Gilbert is not aware – nor is the reader. As the result of what I have the feeling is a huge misunderstanding, Helen finally gives Gilbert her diary to read.

That leads to the next part. Helen writes about her courtship and ultimate marriage to Arthur Huntingdon – a scoundrel that Helen is bent on changing. I don’t condone Arthur’s behavior by any means but the contrast between the Helen that Gilbert knows and the naive Helen that is married to Arthur is almost jarring.

At the halfway point of the novel, I think there is still more to be revealed about Arthur and Helen’s marriage and what circumstances might be responsible for the added maturity of the Helen that eventually moves into Wildfell Hall.

I’ll keep reading.

Recommended Stories: “Greasy Lake” by T. C. Boyle

They were both expert in the social graces, quick with a sneer, able to manage a Ford with lousy shocks over a rutted and gutted blacktop road at eighty-five while rolling a joint as compact as a Tootsie Roll Pop stick. They could lounge against a bank of booming speakers and trade “man”s with the best of them or roll out across the dance floor as if their joints worked on bearings. They were slick and quick and they wore their mirror shades at breakfast and dinner, in the shower, in closets and caves. In short, they were bad.

When I ask for suggested stories, usually by a specific author, I get some good recommendations. It seems, though, that it takes a while for me to get around to reading them or I end up forgetting. So I thought I would try to read and post about a few that have been recommended to me in recent months.

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The first one comes recommended by Short Story Magic Tricks. If you haven’t checked this blog out – you should. I have been looking for the T. C. Boyle story that was going to really blow me away. And I think “Greasy Lake” is the one. It’s definitely the best of Boyle’s stories that I’ve read so far and that’s not saying the others weren’t good. In addition to being good, they are also very funny. “Greasy Lake” definitely made me laugh the most.

Boyle writes this story with a brilliant contrast that accounts for so much of its comedy. The boys in the story may seem sinister and the story itself, set at Greasy Lake in the dark, has a sinister aspect to it, too. But the way Boyle sneaks in small details among the many descriptions of these “hoods”, like details of their pampered college life, starts the chuckles rolling and they don’t stop until the end.

Here are my other posts about T. C. Boyle stories:

The Hector Quesadilla Story

Filthy With Things

The Devil and Irv Cherniske

 

 

 

 

Andre Dubus: A Father’s Story (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 37)

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And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” contains a raw and visceral spirituality that will make my decision for favorite story of the year more difficult.

Luke Ripley, a Massachusetts stable owner in his mid-50’s, lives with plenty of money and plenty of loneliness. Considering himself a bad Catholic, he finds a semblance of companionship in drinking, smoking and talking with Father Paul LeBoeuf. Having lost his family to divorce years ago, Jennifer, Luke’s only daughter of four children, still remains in contact with him.

The Best American Catholic Short Stories: A Sheed & Ward Collection

Dubus begins the story with an introspective Luke evaluating his life. Luke’s attempt at contemplation enhances his loneliness and his conclusion that his life is not exactly full.

Dubus then seemlessly contrasts the inward-looking Luke with a literal dark night of the soul as Luke must outwardly deal with tragic circumstances in which his daughter is involved. The story allows the reader to know Jennifer’s story before Luke discovers it but amazingly keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as Luke walks, sometimes crawls, though a dark woods for the answer both he and Jennifer are looking for – an answer they need but don’t necessarily want.

Dubus ends the story with a conversation between Luke and God – not a sweet supernatural conversation but a gut-wrenching, fist-shaking prayer.

“A Father’s Story” is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read this story when I selected the Five of Clubs for Week 37 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis

 

 

 

Barbara Kingsolver: Homeland (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 36)

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My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird Clan. Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that General Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from their beds and removing them westward. Those few who escaped his notice moved like wildcat families through the Carolina mountains…

Somebody somewhere in pop music once said “the queen of hearts is always your best bet.”  That couldn’t be more applicable than to Week 36 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. I drew the Queen of Hearts this week which corresponded to Barbara Kingsolver’s short story “Homeland” and it’s one of my favorites so far this year. “Homeland” is included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs.

Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

I’ve been familiar with Barbara Kingsolver for about ten years now – ever since it seemed like everyone in my circle was reading her novel The Poisonwood Bible. I never read it but its on my shelf. And after reading “Homeland”, the first of Kingsolver’s works that I’ve read, I can’t wait to read more.

In the story, Great Mam is taken from where her family lives in Morning Glory, Kentucky back to where she grew up in the Hiwassee Valley of Tennessee. The story is told by Great Mam’s adult great granddaughter, Gloria St. Clair, who was eleven at the time of the trip in 1955.

One might say that the story sums up the old adage “you can’t go home again” but that’s really too cliche. The trip itself only takes up about two pages out of the total of fourteen. The story’s depth comes from Great Mam’s attempts to bestow the wisdom of her Cherokee culture to Gloria. Of the family, Gloria seems to be the only one who listens. Gloria’s father, Great Mam’s grandson, married a white woman who, all these years later, still chides Great Mam for not having a church-sanctioned marriage.

Because Gloria is telling this story as an adult, it’s easy for the reader to get the impression that Great Mam’s legacy is at least appreciated by the narrator.

And finally, as an epilogue, a Cherokee legend is told that explains to a certain extent why Great Mam refers to Gloria as “Waterbug”. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful story.

What about you? Have you read anything by Barbara Kingsolver? Any stories or novels you would recommend?

 

 

 

“Friend of My Youth”- The Alice Munro Story of the Month: September

In Alice Munro’s short story “Friend of My Youth”, one wonders whether the protagonist, Flora, is stronger than it may appear or a complete door mat for people to walk over. After two betrayals by the same man, she continues to live with him and his wife on Flora’s own farm and continues to put on a smile. A smile that is suppose to reflect the beliefs of her “weird religion”, a Cameronian Presbyterian sect.

The unique aspect to this story’s structure comes in the way it is told or rather retold. The daughter of a teacher friend that lived with Flora narrates the story as her mother told it to her. This narration “once removed” gives the story an historical effect. Something that makes Flora’s story seem more of a story of women through the ages as opposed to an isolated incident.  This also provides a way for the reader to understand Flora’s plight even if Flora herself doesn’t.

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And as usual, Alice Munro, handles the story-telling masterfully. When the second wife, takes Flora’s cherished few books and burns them, my blood boiled even if Flora’s didn’t:

She sees the smoke rise out of the incinerator in the yard, where her books are burning. Those smelly old books, as Audrey has called them. Words and pages, the ominous dark spines. The elect, the damned, the slim hopes, the mighty torments – up in smoke.  There was the ending.

This story is included in Alice Munro’s collection Carried Away: A Selection of Stories that I’ve borrowed from my public library.