Cynthia Ozick: The Shawl

Deal Me In – Week 44

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Magda was quiet, but her eyes were horribly alive, like blue tigers. She watched. Sometimes she laughed – it seemed a laugh, but how could it be? Magda had never seen anyone laugh. Still, Magda laughed at her shawl when the wind blew its corners, the bad wind with pieces of black in it, that made Stella’s and Rosa’s eyes tear. Magda’s eyes were always clear and tearless. She watched like a tiger. She guarded her shawl. No one could touch it; only Rosa could touch it. Stella was not allowed. The shawl was Madga’s own baby, her pet, her little sister. She tangled herself up in it and sucked on one of the corners when she wanted to be very still.

It doesn’t take long to realize Cynthia Ozick’s story “The Shawl” is set in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  Death isn’t a surprise ending or an odd plot twist but something very real and expected.

With heart-breaking genius, Ozick takes the usual child and security blanket scenario and ups it a few notches to where the shawl is not make-believe security but very real protection and when the shawl is taken away so is the protection.

Amazingly, Ozick points out that Magda learns to laugh without being taught, something innately human.  Magda, at 15 months, also learns to walk on “pencil” legs – something also innately human. These small details emphasize the bigger question: how human is the terror and brutality of Magda’s “home”?

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I read this story because I drew the King of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. “The Shawl” has been frequently anthologized.  I read it as it’s included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike; however, it’s also included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Richard Wright: The Man Who Was Almost A Man

Deal Me In – Week 43

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As the title suggests, Richard Wright’s short story “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” captures that blurry borderline between adolescence and manhood.  Dave Saunders is 17 and feels he is a man.  And as a man, thinks he needs a gun. Half the story is about Dave getting the gun and the other half covers what happens with it.

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As his attempt to shoot the gun goes haywire, the fear Dave feels is palpable to the reader as a result of Wright’s narrative. When Dave finally confesses to his deed with the gun, his fear gives way to a palpable shame that the reader feels right along with Dave as those affected by the gun mishap proceed to berate and ridicule Dave -which is something a “man” doesn’t want to happen.

This is the first story I’ve read by Wright and I have to say he is able to develop a character well with a short amount of space.  The memorable aspect of the story for me will be the ending as Dave hops on top of a train and goes flying off somewhere. Does he become a man?  A great question that a great story doesn’t have to answer:

Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man…

I read this story when I drew the Three of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. It’s included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

Man in White by Johnny Cash

It took me until my 40’s before I came to truly appreciate American icon Johnny Cash.  When I did, though, I became amazed at his very real faith and his very real doubt. Both of which he was able to genuinely present to the public in his music and song-writing.

With Man in White, in a personal manner with detailed research, Cash writes a fictionalized account of the New Testament’s Apostle Paul. I admit that there is a reason this novel isn’t as well-known. For a novelist, Cash was a great songwriter. However, the novel offers a glimpse into Cash’s spiritual passion.

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Most of the novel revolves around the transition from Saul the Persecutor to Paul the Apostle of those he originally persecuted.  I get the distinct impression that the “we don’t believe you” that Paul encountered is something to which Cash related.

Many of the conversations between Paul and the other apostles are either stilted or come directly from Biblical passages. It’s an interesting idea that religious documents started out as casual conversations.

Where Cash’s writing shines is the many dream sequences that Paul and the other characters experience.  Perhaps dreams are something Cash, and song-writers in general, know something about:

For an instant, beyond the outer reaches of space, he saw a light, a fierce, overpowering light. The light was not part of the glitter of galaxies strung out endlessly throughout the blackness of space. The light was outside all this wonder of creation and of an intangible nature. The magnificence of the light appalled even the spiritual mind of Saul, and he realized that this light was the Light of creation, which was on a different plane of existence from the countless stars and worlds. He felt suddenly that there was an unbreachable gulf between him and the Light.

On a more personal note, this happens to be the last book I ever bought at the Borders Bookstore in downtown Indianapolis. It was nine years ago so, yes, this book has been on my shelf for a while. I spent many a lunch hour browsing in this store and was saddened several years ago when Borders declared bankruptcy and it closed.

This isn’t a book that everyone will enjoy so my recommendation would be to go and listen to a Johnny Cash song, instead – any song.

Bradbury of the Month – October: The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind

It’s already October.  It’s hard to believe that after this post there are only two more editions of “Bradbury of the Month”.

This time around, I read Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind”. Similar to “The Flying Machine”, this story is also written as an Asian fable.  It revolves around two cities back in ancient times when cities had walls built around them.

One city is bothered my the other city’s wall because it’s in the shape of an orange (I presume that would be round).  In an effort to one-up the “orange” city, the other one builds their wall in the shape of a pig – because a pig can eat an orange. This results in the “orange” city building a wall in the shape of a club – because a club can beat a pig. Well, it probably would not surprise anyone at this point that this goes on and on and on and on and on. It’s a sort of fairytale version of an arms race.

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Of course, these are only walls in different shapes. It’s not as though there is an actual pig to eat an actual orange – or that any of the other shapes are real. They are only symbols and Bradbury has an interesting take on symbols:

Life was full of symbols and omens. Demons lurked everywhere, Death swam in the wetness of an eye, the turn of a gull’s wing meant rain, a fan held so, the tilt of a roof, and, yes, even a city wall was of immense importance.

While this story has some fairytale traits, it ends on a positive note (unlike most original fairytales). The title gives a clue as to the amicable ending.

Mary Hallock Foote: A Cloud on the Mountain

Deal Me In – Week 42

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…and all these lower hills were bare of life, unless one might fancy that the far-off processions of pines against the sky, marching up the northern sides of the divides, had a solemn personality, going up like priests to a sacrifice, or that the restless river, flowing through the midst of all and bearing the light of the white noonday sky deep into the bosom of the darkest hills, had a soul as well as a voice.

For a story that I included on my Deal Me In 2015 list simply because I wanted another 19th century female author, I am pleasantly surprised by Mary Hallock Foote’s “A Cloud on the Mountain”.  I found her and this story on www.online-literature.com. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

It’s a pioneer story in which a family living out in the middle of Idaho, essentially secluded, is visited by a group of men working on the new railroad.  I don’t know why, but whenever strangers appear to pioneers in stories I get a sense of impending doom – as though all strangers are dangerous or bad.  In this story, my sense isn’t exactly wrong, it’s simply misplaced.

The men befriend the family and their leader, Kirkwood, takes a liking to the oldest daughter, Ruth, who is already betrothed to one of the few men living in the area. Ruth seems to reciprocate Kirkwood’s affection; however, neither of them completely express their feelings due to Ruth’s upcoming marriage.

Foote portrays Kirkwood in a likeable manner, a little on the suave side but not arrogant. Ruth is a little more subdued in her struggle between what she wants and what she feels she is supposed to do.

The story ends with a sacrifice that is both beautiful and tragic.

While “A Cloud on the Mountain” is not included in the book shown below, based on this story, I think Foote’s “reminiscences” could be intriguing.

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Amy Hempel: Today Will Be A Quiet Day

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 41

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And The Short Story Father of the Year Award (at least among the short stories I’ve read this year) goes to “the father” in Amy Hempel’s “Today Will Be A Quiet Day”. He doesn’t have a name. He’s just “the father” and his kids are simply “the boy” and “the girl”; however, Hempel gives this family a depth that I don’t always see in stories.

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The father decides to “touch bases” with his kids so he cancels their music lessons and takes them to their favorite San Francisco burger joint. Along the way they get stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge. The brother and sister fight. They enjoy the restaurant. They head back and camp out in the father’s master bedroom in sleeping bags because weather isn’t conducive to sleeping outside.

Beneath these pleasant activities, Hempel implies that they are dealing with various trauma. Only a few details are given and, in another implication, the father seems to be succeeding in helping his kids deal with them. One such “implication” is this thought by the father:

You think you’re safe, the father thought, but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.

But then there’s the beautiful conclusion:

The father smiled. They are all right, he decided. My kids are as right as this rain. He smiled at the exact spot he knew their heads were turned to his, and doubted he would ever feel – not better, but more than he did now.

And then there is the interesting little fact that a second parent is never mentioned.

I selected this story when I drew the Queen of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2015 Short Story project. It is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp”

This is the final installment of “Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut”. In “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp”, Vonnegut excellently portrays a married couple each of whom has no clue as to what the other one really wants.

Hal manages to build a lamp like Aladdin’s and hires someone to be a jeanie so that he can make his wife, Mary, think he is magically buying her a big house and an expensive car.  In reality, Hal has made a lot of money on the stock market, of which his wife is unaware, and he is buying these things for her.

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That’s where the misunderstanding comes in.  Hal automatically thinks every wife should want expensive things; however, Mary is quite content to live simply. She would much rather hang out with her new friend – the person Hal hired to be the jeanie – who happens to be African American and an unwed mother. Befriending her, Mary, in some ways, makes up for the offensive way Hal treats the “jeanie”.

The fact that this story takes place in 1929 gives the reader a feel for what might eventually happen from a financial standpoint for both Mary and Hal.

This is by no means my favorite story from Bagombo Snuff Box but here are posts to the stories that are my favorites:

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The Package

This Son of Mine

A Night For Love

Ambitious Sophomore

The No-Talent Kid