Pam Durban: Soon (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 13)

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…it had seemed for a moment that the stubborn and contradictory truths of those trees had merged with the warring truths of her own life: the trees had died, but the fruit would not fall. Hope could cling to nothing, and a shriveled apple was all it took to coax love to come slinking back into this world. Inside the fruit she saw seeds; inside the seeds, more fruit. In this motion she saw the turning shadow that eternity throws across this world and also the current that carries us there. She had not forgotten.

Pam Durban’s short story “Soon” centers around Martha, specifically Martha as an older woman. It’s divided into parts of Martha’s life that might seem hopeless but when they are all put together something different occurs.

Martha’s mother dies and sells the family homestead out from under her children. Martha realizes her husband has been having an affair so she tells him she never wants to see him again. In her late fifties, she moves to a mountain cabin by herself and calls a family reunion for many long lost relatives and provides most of them with memories to last a life time. At some point she attends a funeral of a friend at a church full of what she considers stodgy old people. She fits right in.

The hope that is able to spring from hopelessness gives this story its strength and gives Martha her strength. Of course, maybe Martha’s strength was already there but never quite used. It’s a strength that gives her new life – powerful like a resurrection.

Calling a story a “gem” might sound cliché, but there are some stories in which this word perfectly describes them. “Soon” is just such a story.

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It’s included in my copy of The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Three of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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I understand enough of Viet Nam’s history now to know that the ground beneath my parents’ feet had always been shifting…so that by the time I was born, Viet Nam was not my country at all. I was only a small part of it.

Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do is the first “graphic” book I’ve read. It’s her story of how she was brought to the United States from Vietnam by her parents along with her siblings. She also includes the stories of her parents and grandparents as they grew up in Vietnam.

One small incident that stood out to me involved the books her family owned in Vietnam. After Saigon was captured by North Vietnam, Bui’s mother told her older sisters to quickly read the banned books before they had to burn them for fear of communist soldiers discovering them. Interesting that reading books was that important to them.

Just like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizerthis story is neither pro-West nor pro-East. One might simply call it pro-family or pro-humanity. It’s quite a beautiful story both in words and pictures.

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen presents one of the more memorable protagonists that I’ve encountered in my reading in a while. Right from the start, we know this unnamed narrator is a Communist spy in South Vietnam. He has a Vietnamese mother and a French father which sets him up as an outsider for most of his life. We also understand that as an adult he has two close friends, one of which knows about his spying (because he is a spy, too) and one doesn’t. And finally, we know from the beginning that he is presently in an isolation cell writing a confession to a Communist superior. What is he confessing? That’s where the story takes us.

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I would describe the plot as a “slow boil”. We go deep into the mind, background and character of the narrator while small plot turns add up to a satisfying and explosive conclusion. But the novel’s focus remains on the duality of the narrator’s character. In spite of his role as a communist spy, he has been educated in the United States. In spite of his dislike for much of the U. S. foreign policy, he gets “westernized” through music and literature.

The most fascinating aspect of the narrator and the novel to me, though, is the fact that he has what many would call an ability to see politics, history and religion from more than one point of view. This ability is probably what alienates or isolates him the most. At the same time, it’s probably what allows him to have the few close friendships that he has.

And on a final note, the depth and complexity of this novel still allows for comedy – not just something funny stuck in for comic relief but a humor that works. Perhaps since the narrator easily sees things from multiple viewpoints, this also lets him see the humor in life:

After love, was sadness not the most common noun in our lyrical repertoire: Did we salivate for sadness, or had we only learned to enjoy what we were forced to eat? These questions required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac.

 

 

 

 

 

Ha Jin: Children as Enemies (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 12)

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Our grandchildren hate us.

Ha Jin’s short and to the point story “Children as Enemies” turns a different spin on the typical generational immigrant story. Most of the stories I’ve read with this theme express the point of view of the younger generation wanting to break free from the old world – and usually the author and the reader sympathize with these characters.

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Jin’s story tells the troubles of the older generation dealing with their children’s and their children’s children’s desire to break free from everything they hold dear. And to Jin’s credit, I sympathized with them. In fact, I didn’t even realize this was the case until I had finished the story and thought to myself “those ungrateful little brats”. Amazing how Jin effortlessly sneaks that attitude in there without the reader even knowing it.

The quotation above is the first line of the story and the rest of the writing is as clear and crisp right up to the wonderful final line:

This is America, where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business.

I read this story when I selected the Ten of Spades for Week 12 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 11)

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” Oh, my Lord!” cried Marjorie in desperation. “You little nut! Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he’s been building ideals round, and finds that she’s just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!”

It’s the Queen of Clubs for Week 11 of Deal Me In 2018, it’s St. Patrick’s Day and the Deal Me In fates deal me two coincidences with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: 1) one of the more famous American authors with Irish heritage and 2) the second story in a row from a favorite author. Last week, I read a story by Fitzgerald’s colleague and friend, Ernest Hemingway (I might be using the term “friend” rather loosely).

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In this story, Fitzgerald presents the social norms of the teenage scene during his day in great detail with characters who take them very seriously. Buried deep down in this story, though, the reader understands that these norms are charades with a more sinister affect on the characters and their society.

As sinister as they might be, Fitzgerald writes about them with a wit that makes the story a true gem. But the most enjoyable part is the plain old-fashioned plot. The trap is set, the dare is given, the dare is accepted, the dare is regretted – and then?  The glorious revenge!

This story is included in my copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Ernest Hemingway: After the Storm (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 10)

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While it’s almost cliché to talk about the “iceberg theory” when talking about Ernest Hemingway, in his short story “After the Storm”, much of it literally is set under water.

The narrator inadvertently sails over a recently sunken ocean liner in the Florida Keys and takes a couple of dives to check her out. He looks into a sunken port hole and sees the dead eyes of a woman staring back at him with her long hair floating around her – one of the more eerie images in the story.

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In true Hemingway fashion, the unsavory narrator’s interest lies only in whether he can find money somewhere in or around the ship. After several tries, he fails to break in.

Failure – something else in true Hemingway fashion:

They never found any bodies. Not a one. Nobody floating. They float a long way with life belts, too. They must have took it inside. Well, the Greeks got it all. Everything. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.

How wonderful – and how depressing.

This story is included in my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I read it when I selected the King of Clubs for Week 10 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Richard Wright: Bright and Morning Star (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 9)

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Focused and pointed she was, buried in the depths of her star, swallowed in its peace and strength; and not feeling her flesh grow cold, cold as the rain that fell from the invisible sky upon the doomed living and the dead that never dies.

In Richard Wright’s 1939 “Bright and Morning Star”,  An Sue (Aunt Sue) struggles and worries about her sons involvement with the secret meetings of the outlawed Communist Party in a small southern town.  During this struggle, she gets brief memories of her Christian upbringing as a child through snippets of old hymns such as the one in which the story gets its title: “He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star”.

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While the intensity of the plot escalates, and this is one of the more intense stories I’ve read in a while, the reader understands the depth of An Sue’s faith as a child as well as the peeling away of that faith as her sons’ ideals and philosophy replace it – or at least so it seems.

As An Sue makes some drastic and brave decisions to protect her sons and the community in which they are involved, it appears that the two ideals competing for her allegiance become less and less competitive. Wright uses both ideals to lead An Sue down a path of ultimate sacrifice. As An Sue is “buried in the depth of her star”, Wright brilliantly gets the reader to wonder what or who this star is and he brilliantly gives no definitive answer.

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Queen of Diamonds for Week 9 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.