Heat – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 3

Based on my limited exposure to Joyce Carol Oates’, I would say that her story “Heat” contains some of her best writing. Perhaps that is why she includes it in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, an anthology for which she is editor.

13689875

An eleven year-old girl narrates the story that begins with a description of the funeral for two of her classmates, twins Rhea and Rhoda.  The rambunctious girls wander onto a neighbor family’s yard where they are murdered by the mentally challenged son. This all happens during an exceptionally hot summer as the title suggests.

The story begins subtly with much detail surrounding the funeral – the girls, the caskets and the mourners. It seems that the disturbing aspects of Oates’ stories that I’ve read have been set in isolation – up until now.  Having a semi-detached third party telling this story gives the reader some sense of needed distance (at least needed by this reader).  At the same time, the telling of the story puts some perspective on the death and violence (of which Oates appears to be fond) this time around.  The reader gains an understanding of how the horror fits into the community and the bigger picture of life itself.

As the twins background gives way to the murder, the narrator gives us this bit of information about herself:

I never dreamt about Rhea and Rhoda so strange in their caskets sleeping out in the middle of a room where people could stare at them, shed tears and pray over them.  I never dream about actual things, only things I don’t know.  Places I’ve never been, people I’ve never seen.  Sometimes the person I am in the dream isn’t me.  Who it is, I don’t know.

This eventually leads to the narrator explaining to the reader the details of the twins’ murder – or at least more details than someone would normally have who wasn’t at the scene.  Personally, I thought not knowing the details kept the story mysterious and maintained the focus on how the community reacted.  However, by the time the story ends with this final line, I would say that Oates manages to pull off what could have been a technical flaw:

I wasn’t there, but some things you know.

As of now, if I needed to recommend a Joyce Carol Oates story, it would be this one.

Dear Husband, – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 2

I fully prepared myself for the disturbing factor going into this title story from Joyce Carol Oates’ collection Dear Husband,. I couldn’t help but read this story’s background in the inside cover of the edition I borrowed from my library. If a reader truly does not want any SPOILERS, don’t read this post or the inside cover of the collection.

5125384

This is another story that comes in letter format – one long letter from Lauri Lynn to her husband.  The beginning line of the letter sets the tone for the whole story:

Let no man cast asunder what God hath brought together, is my belief.

Lauri Lynn then tells him how she drowned their five children in the bathtub.

As the woman relays the events, she reveals the atrocities of physical abuse she receives from her husband, the mental abuse she receives from his family, and the spiritual abuse she receives from their specific brand of Fundamentalist Christianity.

Oates’ story deftly portrays the mind of Lauri Lynn as a fully developed character; however, I may have found the story more intriguing if I had not been aware (via the inside cover) of how it was “ripped from the headlines”.  I truly found the abuse suffered by Lauri Lynn abhorrent but, nevertheless, I had difficulty mustering up sympathy for her – which appears to be what Oates is attempting with this story.

A Princeton Idyll – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 1

This week I’m posting about a few short stories I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates but first I need to provide a little history as to why I’m doing this.  A few years ago, I read Oates’ story “The Girl With The Blackened Eye” for my book group (Indy Reading Coalition) and found it so disturbing that I didn’t want to read anymore of her work.  This all occurred prior to blogging and since starting Mirror with Clouds, I’ve read much praise for Oates’ stories so I decided to read a little more of her work.

5125384

For Day 1, I read ” A Princeton Idyll” from Oates’ collection Dear Husband,. Told through a series of letters, the story’s protagonist Sophie contacts her late grandfather’s former housekeeper thirty-five years after Sophie last saw her.  She is inquiring of Muriel, the housekeeper, about events surrounding her childhood and her grandfather.

“A Princeton Idyll” is one of the more skillful uses of letter writing to tell a story. Oates brilliantly takes the well-known fact that tone can be misunderstood in letter writing (or in emails) to keep the reader wondering what kind of secrets Muriel holds and what part they play in Sophie’s childhood.  She even utilizes letters crossing in the mail to further the mystery.

The secret of Sophie’s grandfather is eventually revealed with much laughter from Muriel’s letter.  It’s a secret I found just as funny as Muriel did.  I’m not sure Oates’ intent was humor, though.  There was a seriousness in the ending that makes me think I wasn’t suppose to be laughing along with Muriel but I should have been angry and hurt along with Sophie. I felt a little as though I burst out laughing at a funeral.  Regardless of how I reacted or didn’t react, this story was not nearly as disturbing as the first Oates story I read.

Wendell Berry: The Discovery of Kentucky

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 13

8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦

We are one fourth of the way through Deal Me In 2015 with Week 13 and I selected the Eight of Diamonds to read Wendell Berry’s short story “The Discovery of Kentucky” from his collection That Distant Land.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Berry is one of the more well-known authors from my adopted state of Kentucky and his stories all revolve around the citizens of the state’s rural Port Williams. Berry’s stories jump between time periods and generations and he sets “The Discovery of Kentucky” sometime in the 1950’s.

173438

John T. McCallum, proud of his set of black mares, enters his horses and wagon in the new governor’s inaugural parade in Frankfort.  He ropes in a few of his buddies, including the barber Jayber Crowe who narrates the story, to help him out with his wagon and it’s theme of pioneers moving forward. McCallum tends to be overly serious about his endeavor and instructs his friends to only put water in the clay jugs they are using as props.  The rest of the group is by no means as serious and fill the jugs with Kentucky Pride or, as Jayber Crowe puts it, “the distilled essence of our homeland”.

This Kentucky Pride initiates much of the action that could easily be put into the categories of “antics” and “shenanigans”. They culminate in front of the new governor and his wife much to the embarrassment of McCallum.  As tinges of political satire creep up occasionally in comments by the increasingly inebriated bunch, the story takes on a Twain-esque feel.

For those who have never read anything by Berry, I would recommend reading a couple of other stories in addition to this one.  I like the way Berry playfully tosses around Kentucky stereotypes in this story and humor is a part of much of Berry’s fiction; however, most of it also contain sadness, suffering and loss.  “The Discovery of Kentucky” is all humor.

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

I get the distinct impression while reading G. K. Chesterton’s short novel The Man Who Was Thursday that he is an author who enjoys the journey of writing and story-telling more so than the destination.  This novel is a wild philosophical ride containing Chesterton’s grand writing style and imagination.  I admit that I could have easily gotten bogged down in trying too hard to figure out what every detail signified; however, I managed to kick back and have as much fun and intrigue as I think Chesterton intends his readers to have.  Some minor plot SPOILERS are ahead.

259053

A council of seven anarchists each named after a day of the week elects Gabriel Syme to be their Thursday.  Unknown to the council (or so we think), Syme is an undercover philosophical policeman and a poet that intends to subvert the council’s plans. As Syme pursues and is pursued by numerous friends and enemies and those of whom he is not sure, the reader discovers that six of the seven anarchists are actually policemen in the same vein as Syme – leaving only the elusive Sunday for the council to try to pin down.  And pinning down Sunday is a little like pinning down the universe.  Or pinning down what Chesterton actually means.  An example:  What does it mean that a council of anarchists is essentially made up of – nobody?

Throughout the story, I occasionally thought that the plot reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Towards the end, while the six councilmen are sharing a strange party courtesy of Sunday, I stumbled upon this passage:

For a long time- it seemed hours – that huge masquerade of mankind swayed and stamped in front of them to marching and exultant music.  Every couple dancing seemed a separate romance; it might be a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, or a peasant girl dancing with the moon; but in each case it was, somehow, as absurd as Alice in Wonderland, yet as grave and kind as a love story.

All of these oddities and questions make me continue wanting to explore Chesterton’s writing.

Louisa May Alcott: The Brothers

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 12

J♠  J♠  J♠  J♠   J♠  J♠  J♠  J♠

…he belonged to neither race; and the pride of one, the helplessness of the other, kept him hovering alone in the twilight a great sin has brought to overshadow the whole land.

I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 12 of my Deal Me In 2015 project and read Louisa May Alcott’s short story “The Brothers”.  This is the second story I’ve selected in a row that deals with racism in the United States and my first story this year from the Nineteenth Century.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

(photograph obtained from Goodreads.com)

Unlike last week’s story, Langston Hughes’ “Red-Headed Baby”, in which Hughes primarily shows the story happening as opposed to telling it, Alcott’s story is almost all “telling” from various points of view.  This may be why Alcott’s story is not as well-known and not considered as strong; however, I still think it works and found it worth reading.

The primary point of view is from an abolitionist nurse during the American Civil War who finds herself taking care of a Rebel Captain.  Alcott skillfully creates a strong character as the nurse determines in her mind that though the soldier stands for everything she is against, she will do her best to not let him, or anyone else, die.

A freed slave is hired to help the nurse until he discovers the Rebel Captain.  At that point, the former slave tells the nurse his story and the troubled background he shares with the patient. It’s more difficult for the slave to share the same strength of character as the nurse, but the nurse persuades him to move on. Through the story of another freed slave several months later, the nurse discovers the outcome of her attempt at reconciliation.

At times, Alcott – through the voice of the nurse – becomes a little preachy, explaining things to the reader that most readers would not need explained.  Of course, that could also be from the fact that I’m reading this story 150 years after it was published.

This is the first of Alcott’s work that I’ve read and it makes me want to read more.  Other than Jane Austen, Alcott seems to be one of the more popular “classic” authors around the blogosphere.  She’s most famous for her novel Little Women which I bought recently for my youngest daughter but have not read myself.  I might have to make that a priority this year.

Bradbury of the Month – March: The Fog Horn

A lighthouse and a sea monster combine to make “The Fog Horn” a heart-breaking story about loneliness that only Ray Bradbury could pull off.  Lighthouses and loneliness go together quite well; however, throwing in a sea monster, Bradbury pulls the pre-historic world into the present and wraps history, science and religion into a story that is all human.

50014

Johnny, the narrator, is new to the lighthouse where his companion, McDunn, has worked for a while.  Johnny seems a little naive or perhaps just young.  McDunn is the wiser and perhaps older of the two.  The dialogue between the two unfolds to reveal the friendship and respect between them as a sea monster makes an annual appearance . McDunn is accustomed to loneliness and solitude- something new to Johnny.

A moment occurs in the story in which McDunn makes what appears to be eye contact with the sea monster.  Bradbury puts so much intimacy and power in this meeting that I could describe it only as breath-taking. Through the words and thoughts of McDunn, the reader realizes how much the monster and the lighthouse keeper have in common –  loneliness, unrequited love, unfulfilled desire – McDunn as a lighthouse keeper, and the sea monster as one who’s kind has left the world millions of years ago.

I’ll finish this post with one of the many great paragraphs this story contains:

“I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves.  A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore.  I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns.  I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.”