Jon Hassler: Keepsakes (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 17)

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“The paper will burn, except for a few pieces caught by the wind and carried into someone’s pasture or barnyard. Burned or not, the paper will dissolve into the earth in the first heavy rain. The birdcages and knick-knacks will rust and chip and dissolve, too, after a few seasons.”

In Jon Hassler’s short story “Keepsakes”, Roger’s parents make him help the grumpy old priest, Father Fogarty, clean out his rectory before he is transferred to another parish. Lots of old letters, documents and birdcages make for interesting conversation between the young boy and old man. Based on the dates mentioned in the conversations, I would guess that the story is set somewhere around the early 1940’s. And based on the fact that many of Hassler’s stories and novels are set in Minnesota (per Amazon.com), I would guess that this is where “Keepsakes” is set, also.

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While many in the town are not sad to see Father Fogarty leave, Roger’s family is at least respectful. An unspoken understanding of each other develops during the afternoon Roger spends with the priest. In the depth of the conversations, the reader can glimpse Father Fogarty’s line of questioning to himself, if not to Roger, about whether his years as a priest or even his years as a human being have been worth it.

The final bittersweet paragraph lets the reader know that the priest, at least in one afternoon, made a difference in one boy’s life.

Something about this story reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s “Christmas Gift”. I think it was the fact that cigarette smoking seemed to play a prominent role in this story as well as in Warren’s. Roger’s father smokes more than he talks. Father Fogarty smokes while he’s talking. Roger reminds himself of when he and a friend attempted to smoke. Smoking gives a sense of sturdiness to the characters even as they may contemplate the fleetingness of life.

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read it when I selected the Eight of Diamonds for Week 17 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.

 

 

D. H. Lawrence: The Rocking-Horse Winner (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 16)

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…poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.

“The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence tells the story of eight year-old Paul and his ability to pick winners in horse racing. In spite of the less than noble stigma horse racing and gambling might have, Lawrence gives Paul a jubilant innocence that lets the story feel like a fairy-tale. Even Paul’s partners, his Uncle Oscar and Bassett the gardener, who could have easily been portrayed with a more sinister nature, unabashedly back Paul and his efforts to win money for his family.

The way Lawrence slowly reveals the magical manner in which Paul selects winning horses maintains the story’s innocence but when it’s combined with the “voices” that Paul’s house makes and the tragedy at the end, it gives the feel of one of those “deal with the devil” stories even if it’s not specifically mentioned.

Lawrence’s poetic style seamlessly melds these two sides, the potentially good and the potentially evil, making “The Rocking-Horse Winner” a classic.

I read this story when I selected the King of Spades for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Phuong had seen the film on a pirated videotape, and was seduced immediately by the glamour, beauty, and sadness of Scarlett O’Hara, heroine and embodiment of a doomed South. Was it too much to suppose that the ruined Confederacy, with its tragic sense of itself, bore more than a passing similarity to her father’s southern Republic and its resentful remnants?

-from the story “Fatherland”

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Here are my thoughts on the stories included in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees:

Black-Eyed Women: In my post for Nguyen’s novel The SympathizerI didn’t mention that he uses ghosts as not only a little comic relief but to great literary effect. In this story, he does it again. Maybe not for the comedy but, again, for great literary effect and story-telling.

The Other Man: Two gay men sponsor a Vietnamese refugee sometime around the late 1970’s. They all have some adjustments to make.

War Years: A story demonstrating that a totalitarian mindset can begin anywhere – even in a group of Vietnam refugees making their way in the United States.

The Transplant: A Hispanic man attempts to locate the family of the Vietnamese man who gave him his liver. It takes him places he wasn’t intending.

I’d Love You to Want Me: I already posted about this one here. My favorite one of the group!

The Americans: Unless I missed it, this is the one story that does not include Vietnamese refugees; however, refugees can take other forms in America.

Someone Else Besides You: A tough father and son story might make this my second favorite story here.

Fatherland:  This one tells the story of the wartime affect on the next generation of a refugee family. Not everyone is able to pull themselves up by their boot straps.

 

Thom Jones: I Want to Live! (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 15)

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She was bald, scrawny, ashen, yet with a bloated belly. She couldn’t look. Sometimes she would sink to that floor and just lie there, too sick to even cry, too weak to even get dressed, yet somehow she did get dressed, slapped on that hot, goddamn wig, and showed up for dinner. It was easier to do that if you pretended that is wasn’t real, if you pretended it was all on TV.

Thom Jones 1993 story “I Want to Live!” deals with Mrs. Wilson, an older lady with cancer. The story is not exceptionally depressing even if it is obviously sad. Nor is it incredibly uplifting and courageous even though Mrs. Wilson has many brave moments.

What makes the story unique and even a little odd is that Jones strikes a balance somewhere in the middle. While the reader doesn’t know Mrs. Wilson’s family, they easily are just as surprised as Mrs. Wilson that the family member that gives her the most comfort is her son-in-law. He does that with honesty and not pity – with a desire to make her comfortable even with some unconventional methods. The reader gets the impression that Mrs. Wilson and the son-in-law have not been that close but the cancer brings them together.

Mrs. Wilson’s bravery is not that of the Bantam rooster she remembers from her childhood farm life who strutted around as though nothing was too big for him to conquer. Her bravery is more of someone who knows she will be conquered but will keep on going until that happens.

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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 Jack of Diamonds for 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.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’d Love You to Want Me

As I’m reading through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories The Refugees, story number 5 (out of 8) “I’d Love You to Want Me” blew me away so I have to write a separate post about it.

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Told from the point of view of Mrs. Khahn, an older Vietnamese wife whose husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she thinks back periodically about the escape from Saigon she made with him and her six children.

As she deals with the effects of her husband’s disease, such as when he refers to her by a different name, the events that her family survived decades before are still as fresh and new as the Alzheimer’s.

Nguyen’s ability to portray a love that goes well beyond the romantic or the emotional is stunning. It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a character this strong. Mrs. Khanh’s husband is a reader, sometimes to her dismay and frustration, which makes the following passage both heart-breaking and uplifting:

She wondered what, if anything, she knew about love. Not much, perhaps, but enough to know that what she would do for him now she would do again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. She would read out loud, from the beginning. She would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word.

The other stories I’ve read from this collection are also very good and I’ll post about them soon.

 

Pam Houston: The Best Girlfriend You Never Had (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 14)

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A perfect day in the city starts like this: my friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann’s where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.

This is how Pam Houston’s 1999 short story “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” begins. And as we read on, we’re introduced by our narrator, Lucy, to numerous young single adults and lots of unrequited love. Lucy can tell us about her world with a sharp, sarcastic wit similar to the sitcoms Seinfeld or Friends (although the story is set in San Francisco instead of New York City). Even her reminiscing about how much her parents drank while she was growing up comes off as humorous.

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However, in an astonishing fashion, Houston slowly lets us realize that the drinking problems of Lucy’s parents were not funny. In fact, as the flashbacks go deeper, we understand that the humor is only a mask for something more tragic. Houston perfectly aligns comedy to tell the story of some tragic family relationships.

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 Four of Clubs for Week 14 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.

 

Flannery O’Connor: Why Do the Heathens Rage? (A Short Story Easter Extra)

I find it wonderful and often very funny that so many of the characters in Flannery O’Connor’s stories don’t know what to make of Jesus.

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Her short story “Why Do the Heathens Rage?” is considered to have been the start of her third novel. A mother is disappointed with her son for not taking responsibility for the family farm when his father has a stroke. The son spends all of his time – you guessed it – reading books:

One passage she found in a book he had left lying on the upstairs-bathroom floor stayed with her ominously.

“Love should be full of anger,” it began, and she thought, well mine is.

The passage goes on to reference a mighty General coming to conquer the world. From reading the back of the book, she determines that the book is a letter written from “a St. Jerome to a Heliodorus”.

Then it came to her, with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General…was Jesus.

An unpleasant little jolt? Is the mother the heathen from the title? Is she raging because her son won’t work? And where does Jesus fit in? All questions that maybe would have been answered in O’Connor’s unwritten novel?

Or maybe not?