Annie Proulx Week, Day 1 – The Mud Below

A few weeks ago in my Deal Me In 2015 short story project, I read Annie Proulx’s story “The Half-Skinned Steer”.  I found it intriguing and decided to read a few more of her stories that I’ll be posting about this week.  For the source of my stories, I went to Proulx’s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories in which “The Half-Skinned Steer” is included.

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For Day 1 of Annie Proulx week, I read “The Mud Below”.  This story goes into the world of rodeos – a world with which I confess I am not familiar.  But the details of Diamond Felts career and his rise to fame pulls in the reader whether they know anything about riding bulls or not.

Diamond Felts, a rugged individual, only finds purpose in life from riding a bull and, ultimately, the bull doesn’t give real meaning to him.  A nagging question from his childhood hides behind all of Felts’ life.  In a heart-breaking conversation with his mother, even she won’t give him the answer he wants.

Proulx’s words put so much beauty into Felts’ sadness and loneliness, it could take the reader’s breath away:

…because he knew he was getting down the page and into the fine print of this way of living. There was nobody in his life to slow him down with love. Sometimes riding the bull was the least part of it, but only the turbulent ride gave him the indescribable rush, shot him mainline with crazy-ass elation. In the arena everything was real because none of it was real except the chance to get dead. The charged bolt came, he thought, because he wasn’t. All around him wild things were falling to earth.

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Flannery O’Connor: Greenleaf

Deal Me In – Week 22

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She became aware after a time that the noise was the sun trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did, outside of her property.

The Eight of Hearts in my Deal Me In 2015 project this week brought me to the brilliant, funny and, more often than not, disturbing Flannery O’Connor.  Her story “Greenleaf” is another one included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.  I find this story a little more traditional by O’Connor standards but it still has the oddities I’ve come to appreciate in her work.

Flannery O'Connor

(Photo obtained from goodreads.com)

The reader gets an “ear full” from the narrator, Mrs. May. The bulk of the story is Mrs. May’s perspective on the world – well, her world, anyway – especially in respect to her hired hand Mr. Greenleaf and his family.  On the flip side, the reader gains a significant understanding of Mr. Greenleaf’s perspective by only a few comments scattered throughout the story, all of which are directed to Mrs. May.

In Mrs. May’s mind, there is a vast difference between herself and Mr. Greenleaf on the social ladder.  Mr. Greenleaf, and I have to think O’Connor also, sees Mrs. May perhaps on the very next rung up only a few inches from himself.  A bull that invades Mrs. May’s farm fleshes out the animosity between the two people.  For those who have not read O’Connor before, the end may come as a shock; however, if you are familiar with her work, the story’s ending won’t be a surprise but will still be satisfying.

Occasionally, I find fascination in minor aspects of stories.  In “Greenleaf”, I enjoyed the names of Mrs. May’s sons, Wesley and Scofield.  As I also liked the names of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T and E.T.

My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saul Bellow: A Silver Dish

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DEAL ME IN – WEEK 21

Saul Bellow has been on my radar for a long time now, so I was glad to have drawn the Ace of Diamonds this week for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  It corresponded to Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish”.  I admit that when I selected this story from the table of contents of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, the title didn’t conjure up images of excitement.  I envisioned a short story chock full of literary meaning but rather tedious.  I was absolutely wrong.  This is one of the funnier and more irreverent stories I’ve read this year.

Woody Selbst is in his sixties and has done well for himself.  As he faces the inevitable death of his father, Morris, Woody takes a long humorous look at life with his father. Woody’s mother, Halina, converts to Fundamentalist Christianity much to the dismay of ne’er-do-well Morris.  Growing up, Woody manages to walk the straight and narrow until the pivotal moment when visiting the home of a pillar of the church, Morris steals a silver dish by stuffing it in his pants.  Woody becomes guilty by association.  While he continues to have sympathy for those in religious circles, Woody ceases to see himself belonging there.

Saul Bellow at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony

(Saul Bellow, left, at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.  Photo obtained from goodreads.com)

Sharp-witted social commentary add to the fascinating life that Woody lives.  This is the second story I’ve selected in a row that deals with the lives of those immigrating to America:

Up and down Division Street, under every lamp, almost, speakers were giving out:  anarchists, Socialists, Stalinists, single-taxers, Zionists, Tolstoyans, vegetarians, and fundamentalist Christian speakers – you name it. A beef, a hope, a way of life or salvation, a protest.  How was it that the accumulated gripes of all the ages took off so when transplanted to America?

While I’ve only read one story each by these authors, Bellow’s story reminds me of Junot Diaz’s “Edison, New Jersey”. I was reminded of Diaz’ description of pool tables when I read Bellow’s description of church bells:

Woody was moved when things were honest.  Bearing beams were honest, undisguised concrete pillars inside high-rise apartments were honest.  It was bad to cover up anything.  He hated faking.  Stone was honest.  Metal was honest.  These Sunday bells were very straight.  They broke loose, they wagged and rocked, and the vibrations and the banging did something for him – cleansed his insides, purified his blood.  A bell was a one-way throat, had only one thing to tell you and simply told it.  He listened.

I highly recommend this story and whole heartedly agree with John Updike as to it’s inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.  More Saul Bellow posts should be coming in the near future.

My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Bradbury of the Month: May – The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl

I’ve been in the process of moving and while I have had time to read, it’s been difficult to find time to post.  So May’s Bradbury of the Month edition might be on the short side.

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Bradbury’s short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” begins as well as any horror story with William Acton having just murdered Donald Huxley in Huxley’s home.  Bradbury’s descriptions for the first page or two easily rival Stephen King in the arena of the macabre. Then, the story spirals into comedy as Acton’s paranoia takes over with his obsession to erase all traces of his fingerprints.

Unable to remember where he had been in the house, Acton recalls small scenes prior to the murder in which he thinks of places and things he might have touched.  Ultimately, the tiniest of details causes him fear and trembling right down to the story’s punchline.

In some ways, the journey from macabre to funny seems jarring; however, Bradbury handles it better than many writers could. His continuous use of the whorling images of fingerprints reinforces Acton’s downward spiraling mental capacities along with a simple touch (so to speak) of humanity.

Mary Lerner: Little Selves

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 20

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So she folded quiet hands beneath her heart, there where no child had ever lain, yet where now something grew and fattened on her strength.  And she seemed given over to pleasant revery.

Published in 1915, Mary Lerner’s story “Little Selves” tells of a time and place when death didn’t seem so – fatal.  I find it interesting that this story comes onto the literary landscape just before the destruction of World War I would usher in a flood of disillusionment in American Literature.  In the story, death isn’t sentimentalized nor is its finality diminished. Death is death – but it doesn’t stop life from being life.

Margaret O’Brien, 75 years old, knows her life is near its end.  As she lays on what could be her deathbed, neighbors visit as well as versions of her younger self in what most would consider dreams or imagination. Some of her relatives consider her to not be in her right mind as she mumbles about her childhood.  Her niece Anna knows better.  Both Margaret and Anna came to America from Ireland when they were young.  Lerner effectively puts this immigration solidly behind every aspect of the narrative while only briefly mentioning it outright.

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Through her characters, Lerner implies that life and death had a magical quality in the “Old Country”.  A magic that those American born, such as Margaret’s priest and her nephew-in-law, don’t and can’t understand.  This story is very similar to Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” but it has a charm all it’s own.

I selected this story when I drew the King of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This story is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is one of “the” books of the last year or so.  I was on a very long request list at my library and when I finally got it I found I could only keep it for a week instead of the standard three weeks.  I confess I’ve had it for a month.  I need to get it back so someone else can read it.

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The novel focuses on Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a girl blinded by a childhood disease who lives with her father, a Natural Museum locksmith, in 1930’s Paris.  And Werner Pfennig, an orphaned teenager living with his sister at a Children’s Home in Germany. Only a few pages into the story, Doerr manages to give the reader a strong implication that the lives of these two characters are somehow going to intersect.  How, when, where and why make the story well worth reading – along with beautiful writing, an amazing cast of characters, and a plot that isn’t in chronological order but ordered perfectly anyway.

The story contains a subtle contrast between humanity and the natural world.  From birds to sea snails to radio waves, in the midst of the ever-increasing European conflict that evolves into World War II, nature seems the safer of the two:

Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk.  Hubris, like the oldest stories.  They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.

Art and literature, in the form of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and DeBussy’s “Clair De Lune”, have a prominent role in the plot, also:

Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on rereading a chapter earlier in the novel: make the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.

It’s difficult to write about the book without giving away what readers should discover for themselves.  For anyone who may not have read this book last summer, this summer is just around the corner, so give it a try.  And for those still on the waiting list at my library, I’m returning it tomorrow!

F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Alcoholic Case

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 19

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “An Alcoholic Case” rates as a departure in his writing style. Fitzgerald’s typical ornate wording gives way to a more stripped down, cut-to-the-chase manner of writing.  I make no definitive conclusion; however, after the informative biographies I’ve read about Fitzgerald (So We Read On by Maureen Carrigan) and Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson), I’m curious if this story was in some way an attempt by Fitzgerald to write like his Lost Generation cohort with whom he did not always have the greatest relationship.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Picture obtained from goodreads.com)

A home health nurse is assigned to the case of an alcoholic and he tends to live up to the reputation alcoholics have among the nurses.  Broken glass becomes some sort of symbol whether it’s a broken bottle of gin on the bathroom floor or the broken windows in the bus the nurse takes home each evening.  Life’s brokenness and sharpness come to mind as I read the quick story – another exception to the typical Fitzgerald style.  This is probably the shortest story of his that I’ve read.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of this story to Fitzgerald’s own relationship to alcohol.  In both the previously mentioned biographies, Fitzgerald’s drinking binges were widely known and could have resulted in at least a few lost relationships in addition to contributing to his early death at the age of 44 (this story was published in 1937, three years prior to his death).

In Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson quotes one of Hemingway’s letters in which he laments his public’s expectations of writing longer novels as opposed to novels like The Old Man and The Sea.  At least ten years after Fitzgerald’s death, Hemingway wonders if this had any impact on Fitzgerald’s downturn as a popular author as The Great Gatsby was a short novel, also.  With a typical mean stroke (even after Fitzgerald was dead), Hemingway says:

“…I will bet it did more to wreck poor old Scott than anything except Zelda, himself and booze.”

Because I prefer Fitzgerald to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway to be Hemingway, “An Alcoholic Case” may not be my favorite of Fitzgerald’s stories, but it was worth reading.  Also, if one is looking for the light, fun and sentimental Fitzgerald, try his earlier stories – this one does not fit that mold:

She knew death – she had heard it, smelt its unmistakable odor, but she had never seen it before it entered into anyone, and she knew this man saw it in the corner of his bathroom: that it was standing there looking at him while he spit from a feeble cough and rubbed the result into the braid of his trousers.  It shone there…crackling for a moment as evidence of the last gesture he ever made.

I selected this story for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project when I drew the Five of Clubs.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.