Mary Gordon: Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 31)

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She sat chewing, looking at the television. What was that look in her eyes now? Why did he want to call it wickedness? Because it was blank and hateful. Because there was no light. Eyes should have light. There should be something behind them. That was dangerous, nothing behind her eyes but hate. Sullen like a bull kept from a cow.

Mary Gordon’s short story “Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” is the second story I’ve read this year involving Alzheimer’s Disease. The first one was Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” which I read in March. While most readers (including myself) would consider Munro’s to be the better written story, Gordon’s comes from a slightly different perspective which makes it just as intriguing.

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

Mr. Cassidy, in his old age, deals with a wife who’s personality has drastically changed. She constantly swears at him and becomes violent; however, decades ago, he promised – at her request- to let her die in her own bed, to never let “them” take her away. Mr. Cassidy wants to honor his promise much to the dismay of his son who accuses his father of “playing God”.

“Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” has no resolution which makes me think more of Munro’s story. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” actually has a resolution and it’s a surprisingly happy one given the topic. I find the comparison interesting.

I read “Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” this week when I selected the Seven of Clubs for Week 31 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

 

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J. F. Powers: Dawn (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 30)

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A sealed envelope shows up in a church collection with “The Pope – Personal” written on it. It’s known by the parishioners that the offering will be delivered to the Pope personally by the Bishop. So not knowing what is inside this particular envelope puts Father Udovic in somewhat of a dilemma: open the envelope and dismiss the wishes of the donor or don’t open the envelope and risk something less than appropriate going directly to the Pope.

With whom did the envelope originate is the central mystery surrounding J. F. Powers short story “Dawn”.  As trite as the problem may seem in the grand scheme of things, Powers manages to turn it into an odd little “who done it”? The most intriguing aspect being Father Udovic’s imagining of all the different people who might be responsible and for what reason.

Father Udovic (and the reader) eventually discovers the donor’s identity; however, the lesson the priest would like to extend to the “culprit” is a lesson that could easily be extended back to the priest, himself, and the church in general – kind of a spiritual catch-22:

It seemed to him, sitting there saying nothing, that they saw each other as two people who’d sinned together on earth might see each other in hell, unchastened even then, only blaming each other for what had happened.

This is the third story I’ve read by Powers. This one and the baseball story “Jamesie” are well worth reading. However, for a truly great Powers story, I would recommend the feline-narrated “Death of a Favorite” .

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

I read “Dawn” this week when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 30 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Michael Chabon: Smoke (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 29)

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After a while, Magee himself, who had been awake for some thirty-two hours, drifted into an easy sleep. He dreamed his usual dream, the one in which he had found his stuff and was on the mound at Three Rivers throwing seven different kinds of smoke.

“Smoke” by Michael Chabon asks the question: Which is better – to see your mediocre baseball career go further down the tubes or to be dead? Matt Magee, the mediocre pitcher, asks himself the question as he attends the funeral of his catcher, Eli Drinkwater.

Is there ever a specific answer? No. But as Magee interacts with an aging sportswriter and Eli’s wife and son, we can start to make out the answer in Magee’s mind. Of course, we can’t really get Drinkwater’s perspective because he is – uhh – dead.

While a very nice story, I admit I was a little disappointed as the writing style and humor didn’t hit me the way it did in Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the topic of my first post here at Mirror With Clouds) or his collection of funny essays Manhood for Amateurs.  

I selected this story when I drew the Six of Diamonds for Week 29 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. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar.

 

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story…

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I first read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton decades ago when I was in seventh grade. I remember my English teacher encouraging us to read outside of what was required for class – which is something I never had a problem doing. To get extra credit for this reading, we would individually take about fifteen minutes to tell the teacher about the book we read. I specifically remember my teacher’s eyes getting very big as I recounted the plot of Hinton’s novel.

All these years later, The Outsiders still holds up as a great story.

On the one hand, Hinton uses stereotypes to tell her story of the conflict between the “greasers” and the “Soc’s” (short for Socials, so my guess is it’s pronounced more like sosh – with a long ‘o’- than sock) in an Oklahoma town. She then sometimes slowly sometimes quickly tears down those stereotypes as the story unfolds showing that stereotyping tends to be what causes conflicts between groups of different people.

Published in 1967 and geared towards teenagers about teenagers, I find it a little odd how little profanity is used. When the narrator, Ponyboy, and his greaser friends say “golly”, it seems a little dated; however, I am probably seeing the story through my own stereotypes when I read the book this time around. In seventh grade, I remember thinking it strange that the story is set in Oklahoma. At the time, I thought the gang violence in the story only occurred in places like New York City.

I’m grateful how reading fiction has and continues to expand my horizons.

 

 

 

 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

“Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.”

– from Walter Kirn in Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever as quoted by Alan Jacobs

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As the title might imply, Alan Jacobs’ slim book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is going to appeal mostly to those individuals who already love reading. Those who are not inclined to read for pleasure will probably gloss over this title.

He puts much of the book’s emphasis on a concept he calls “Whim”. Reading at Whim isn’t simply reading randomly and chaotically (that would be whim with a lower case ‘w’). True, according to Jacobs, Whim involves a little randomness and lack of plan; however, its a randomness based on knowing yourself as a reader. Jacobs tends to lightly make fun of all of those lists of books that everyone should read. Whim tends to not just include reading those works that are considered “literary” but any work that can bring true pleasure to the reader. At the same time, Jacobs encourages readers, at Whim, to begin exploring works that might go deeper than sheer entertainment. Reading for pleasure seems to be somewhere in between reading out of necessity (for education or for information) and reading for entertainment – although many times all of them can occur at the same time. I like the way he tied this lack of plan to those of us who were lucky enough to have parents and teachers who read to us:

Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendepity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a find one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

If you are an avid reader, this book will enjoyably reinforce what you already know.

 

 

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A female was talking to him. (It was an unprecedented change in fortune, as though his threadbare Skein of Destiny had accidentally gotten tangled with that of a doper, more fortunate brother.)

When it comes to stories, Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao demonstrates the concept that it’s not always about the destination – sometimes it’s the journey that counts. Before one even opens the book, they know that the story is about Oscar and that his life is brief and, well, wondrous.

When I began reading, I found the narrative enjoyable and funny as teenagers among the Dominican families of New Jersey went about their usual and sometimes unusual lives. It seemed, though, that it was simply a glorified YA novel (not that there is anything wrong with YA novels). I admit I thought to myself “This won the Pulitzer?”

But it didn’t take long to figure a few things out. The narrative of Oscar’s life as a nerdy, lonely teenager moves forward in a normal chronological plot line. The history of Oscar’s family – his mother and grandparents- moves backwards in a more sweeping saga of the totalitarian regime that rules the Dominican Republic during the middle of the Twentieth Century.

About a fourth of the way through the novel, I again thought to myself “Ah, I’m seeing how this works and I like it.”

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The story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate and Oscar’s sister Lola’s ex-boyfriend. It begins as an odd choice for a narrator as Yunior doesn’t enter the actual plot until Oscar’s college years. Between Oscar’s writing that is never published and Yunior’s relationship with Lola, it begins to make sense that he would know so much about Oscar’s family and childhood.  Yunior is a recurring character in Diaz’ writing and he becomes a perfect narrator in this novel. He is a contrast to Oscar in that he dates lots of girls and is relatively sociable. His interest in books and writing seems to be what he has in common with Oscar.

Diaz gives hints throughout the novel (not the least of which is the title) of the amazing conclusion to Oscar’s story. In his struggle to make a difference in a world that isn’t interested in him, Oscar ultimately makes a sacrifice that may not go down in history but impacts the lives of his family and friends to a degree that lives up to the word “wondrous” in the title and makes the novel absolutely worthy of the Pulitzer.

 

Caroline Gordon: Emanuelle! Emanuelle! (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 27)

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Heyward replied simply that Monsieur Fay was writing to his wife, adding, “He tells me that he has written to her at this hour, whenever they are separated, for thirty years.”

I’ve often wondered if it takes a certain amount of selfishness to make a living as an artist. Is it selfishness or is it simply a tenacity to keep going or a passion that can’t be suffocated? I don’t know the exact answer; however, these questions seem to be behind Caroline Gordon’s short story “Emanuelle! Emanuelle!”. I read this when I picked the Ten of Clubs for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

In addition to these interesting questions, Gordon’s story provides another great example of the detached sidekick as a narrator. Although in the case of “Emanuelle! Emanuelle!”, Robert Heyward isn’t narrating the story in first person but we get the details from his perspective in third person. Heyward, a recently published American poet, becomes the secretary for already established French poet, Guillaume Fay.

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

Heyward and Fay are visiting a North African city. Fay faithfully writes to his wife in Normandy, France everyday at a specific time prompting Heyward to remember his own wife in New York. Fay makes it known that the letters he sends his wife will one day be published. As Heyward visits the Fay’s farm in France he realizes that things may not be as pleasant between the Fay’s as Heyward thought.

Without giving away the powerful ending, Fay’s art may be interfering with his marriage. This story brought to mind Willa Cather’s story “A Death in the Desert” which I posted about a few years ago here.