Posted in Short Stories

Guy Davenport: Belinda’s World Tour

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 35

In Guy Davenport’s short story “Belinda’s World Tour”, Lizaveta, a little girl in Prague, loses her doll, Belinda, while at a park. Upset about it, that evening she tells a guest of her parents who then tells Lizaveta what happened to Belinda. She got whisked away on a tour around the world. It happened so fast that Belinda didn’t have time to tell Lizaveta.

Davenport formats the rest of the story in humorous postcards written to Lizaveta from Belinda. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite postcard – the one from Denmark:

Dear Lizaveta: Here we are in Copenhagen, staying with a nice gentleman named Hans Christian Andersen. He lives next door to another nice gentleman named Soren Kierkegaard…The harbor is the home of several mermaids.They are very shy…The Danes are melancholy and drink lots of coffee…I saw a bookstore in a shop with the title How To Be Sure As To What Is And What Isn’t. And The Doll’s Guide to Existentialism; If This, Then What? and You Are More Miserable Than You Think You Are. In haste, Belinda.

These postcards are sort of a gimick and kind of cute but they work. And why do they work? Because the dinner guest at Lizaveta’s parents was none other than Kafka. Yes, all it takes is the existence of a fictional Kafka to put the depth in this story and make it amazing. Presumably, he’s the one sending the post cards. Spoilers! By the end of the story, Lizaveta has a new doll and Belinda is married.

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Ten of Clubs for Week 35 of my Deal Me In Short Story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.



Posted in Fiction

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

British journalist Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American reminds me of a Humphrey Bogart character: street smart, witty, cynical, not playing to anyone’s side but his own, more depth than one might initially give him credit.

Contrast that to the American business man/spy Alden Pyle: exuberant, naive with an innocent type of arrogance. In fact, innocent is the way Greene (through Fowler) frequently describes Pyle.

When the two initially meet in Vietman in the 1950’s, Pyle immediately dubs Fowler his best friend – and then immediately says he wants to marry Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress. Pyle never varies from these traits while Fowler thinks long and hard about their political and social situation.

As the plot thickens into a political spy thriller, the suspense as to how Fowler will finally handle Pyle’s task at hand increases along with the amount of opium Fowler puts in his own pipe. The title of the novel is from a joke of sorts: The only quiet American is a dead American.

As one might already tell, Greene does not paint Americans with high regard and is one of the reasons this novel has been frequently banned over the decades. Published before the United States had fully escalated it’s involvement in Vietnam, one could say that Greene had a knack for understanding the future as Fowler surmises:

Perhaps there is a prophet as well as a judge in those interior courts where our true decisions are made.

Posted in Fiction

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

In the middle of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, Sarah Miles makes a promise to God. She promises that if her lover, Maurice Bendrix, lives through a German bombing of London, she will give him up and stay with her husband – even though she loves Maurice.

Maurice lives. And she gives him up.

This premise allows for the both of them to deal with God in their own way. Sarah moves ever closer toward converting to Catholicism and Maurice runs farther and farther away from any religious thought. In a way, God seems to be a nemesis to both of them.

As much as God is involved in this novel, it seems to have been written with both the believer and the non-believer in mind. Numerous thoughts and comments occur to which someone who does not believe in God might say “Yeah, I get that”! But then, there are ideas to which someone who does believe in God could say the same thing. This gives the novel more of an honesty than if Greene simply were proselytizing for his own religious agenda.

It’s somewhat humorous the way Maurice talks to the God he doesn’t believe in:

I thought with anger and bitterness, You might have left poor Henry alone. We have got on for years without You. Why should You start intruding into all situations like a strange relation returned from the Antipodes?

With all of this talk of God, Greene doesn’t really let anyone off the hook – and that probably includes God.

Posted in Short Stories

Jim Wayne Miller: The Taste of Ironwater

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 34

…he was sure of one thing: He was not going to be leaving in a few weeks to work a while and then snap back home, like a doll on a rubber band. He was home.

In Jim Wayne Miller’s “The Taste of Ironwater”, Buddy is from Wolf Pen, Kentucky but working in Columbus, Ohio. He runs into a friend at a bar in Columbus and the tension of home comes flooding around him.

To Buddy, home means everybody knowing his business – some of which he would prefer they not know. Also, to Buddy, home is a place of welcome and acceptance. His run-in at the bar forces him to contend with this tension resulting in his returning to Wolf Pen.

As Buddy returns home at the end of the story, he gushes with excitement that the reader knows won’t last long but Miller allows us to allow Buddy to have this contentment at least for the moment. And that’s a good thing.

In case you’ve followed me as I’ve read the stories from Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs, you’re probably not surprised that the question of what “home” means would show up in another story. I read this one when I selected the Eight of Diamonds for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

“I believe that there is always a ram in the bush,” he heard her say.

He turned to face her. Small white expectant features. Wide unblinking eyes overlaid with a transparent yellowish film flecked with pinpoints of golden light, probably from the sun. A serpent’s eyes, they almost seem. The eyes of a story writer?

“A ram in the bush, you say,”

“I believe that.”

“How very nice to think so.”

Old Men at Midnight rounds out my reread of Chaim Potok’s novels that I started sometime in the spring of 2018. This is also his final published work from 2001. Potok died in 2003.

This novel differs in structure from Potok’s other novels in that it is three novellas that connect through Ilana Davita from Davita’s Harp at various stages of her life. In each story, she plays the restorer of memory for three different male characters – all Jewish and all affected by World War II.

But these male characters are not necessarily the “Old Men” mentioned in the title. The stories each one tells Ilana contains an old man such as a Polish Rabbi enlisting the help of the youth of his community to repaint his synagogue, a doctor who saves the arm of a Jewish soldier turned KGB agent in Stalin’s Russia, and a trope teacher who purposely returns to Germany during World War II.

The “Midnight” in the title perhaps has a dual meaning. These men are in the midnight of their lives in that they are nearing the end and they are also in an extremely dark and dangerous time in history.

Most of Potok’s novels have at least a glimmer of hope as Ilana states in the quotation above; however, her male friends seem to think differently. As Ilana grows into an accomplished novelist, I like to think that Potok somehow finds memory-keeping and story-telling to be part of this hopefulness.

Here are links to my posts about Potok’s other novels:

The Chosen

The Promise

My Name is Asher Lev

The Gift of Asher Lev

I Am The Clay

The Book of Lights

In The Beginning

Davita’s Harp





Posted in Short Stories

Paul Griner: Clouds


Deal Me In 2020 – Week 33

I lie back, feel the grass, springy beneath my shoulders, tickling my neck. There’s not a cloud in the sky, just the blue heavens, arching and empty.

In Paul Griner’s short story “Clouds”, the elderly narrator has had a fascination with clouds for much of his adult life. In the story, he explains the science behind clouds – that clouds, while they look like something significant, they are made up of comparatively little substance.

As the narrator explains this, he also tells of his life as a husband and father. He doesn’t consider himself to have been great at either.

Griner’s ability to combine both of these scenarios into one story is truly magnificent. The narrator pays more attention to what has less signficance or substance.

Yes, it is possible for a person to be interested in clouds and be a good father and husband. But this narrator wasn’t able to grasp that.

This is another story from Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Eight of Clubs for Week 33 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok’s novel Davita’s Harp centers on a young child growing up in 1930’s Brooklyn. Based on this, one would not say this is a departure for Potok because almost all of his novels begin with a young child growing up in 1930’s or 1940’s Brooklyn. The departure in this novel is that the protagonist is female as opposed to the male protagonists in his other novels.

What one might also consider a departure is that in most of Potok’s novels, the young child is born into a faith community that as he grows up he moves away from (although never completely leaving) to embrace at least some cultural and societal aspects that are outside his faith in the secular world; however, in Davita’s Harp, Ilana Davita Chandal is raised by Communist parents of the 1930’s who disavow all religion and as she grows up she explores Judaism from the outside moving in.

Using a female protagonist from a secular family sheds some light on the role of women in Jewish culture. As Ilana decides to say the Kaddish at her friend’s synagogue for a loved one who has died, she is told that women don’t say the Kaddish, only men. As the reader has gotten to know Ilana, it doesn’t come as a surprise that she says it anyway. What is more of a surprise is how several of the Jewish women from the synagogue actually support Ilana in her prayer.

The loved one for whom she is saying the Kaddish died in the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. When the new Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ilana’s class takes a field trip to see it and she becomes slightly overwhelmed by it:

…I did not know what I was saying. I ran back and forth through the town, holding the bird to me…Fires and bombs and airplanes and screams and a bridge somewhere and a river. He was here and I could not find him. I turned a corner – and there was the bull, staring, and the horse screaming. I held the bird, felt its warm and terrified pulsing.

…I wondered if all the rains in all the world could ever put out the fires of Guernica.

As she grows up, Ilana takes an interest in telling stories – from her imagination as opposed to the Talmud, something else that sets her apart from her Jewish friends. This imagination,this place inside her mind, comforts her from the distress and disillusion she finds in the world in which she lives. Many of the adults in her life make comments such as “this has been such a century”.

Interesting perspective from a story set almost 100 years in the past from our present time.


Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Ambitious Guest


Deal Me In 2020 – Week 32

One September night, a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high with the driftwood of mountain streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered ruins of great trees that had come crashing down the precipice. Up the chimney roared the fire, and brightened the room with its broad blaze. The faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed; the eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen; and the aged grandmother, who sat knitting in the warmest place, was the image of Happiness grown old.

What’s not to love about this opening paragraph and what’s not to love about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cozy little story “The Ambitious Guest” with a fatalistic mountain backdrop?


Every Hawthorne story I’ve read this year seems to be my favorite Hawthorne story – until I read the next one. It’s the same with this one. I would say that this one will be difficult to top but I’ve heard really good things about “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and that one is still somewhere “on deck”.

The above mentioned cozy family gathering is set in a tavern/inn and is interrupted by a guest who is in no way pompous but in every way likable even as he discusses all of his ambitions with the family. He elaborates on the American Dream and, for better or worse, one realizes how uniquely American this type of Dream is.

Then there’s the mountain that this tavern/inn is built against – a uniquely American “mountain”.

There are lots of good Hawthorne stories to read and they all are as timely today as they were approximately 200 years ago but I highly recommend this one. It’s included in a Hawthorne collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the Four of Clubs for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Another Country by James Baldwin

During a scene in James Baldwin’s Another Country, Vivaldo Moore gets high on a New York City rooftop with some people he just met and makes this observation:

The sky looked, now, like a vast and friendly ocean, in which drowning was forbidden, and the stars seemed stationed there, like beacons. To what country did this ocean lead? for oceans always led to some great good place: hence, sailors, missionaries, saints, and Americans.

Amidst a group of friends in Greenwich Village, Harlem and Paris, France, Baldwin lays bare the racial and sexual landscape of late 1950’s New York City which isn’t really that much different from the America of today.

In smokey bars, bistros and bedrooms, these characters have some of the most honest and viscerally raw conversations I’ve read in a long time – its an honesty that cuts so deep its difficult to not feel the pain of everyone regardless of race, gender and sexuality.

The rocky interracial relationship between Vivaldo and singer Ida Scott is interspersed with music from Bessie Smith’s blues to Mahalia Jackson’s gospel of which many of the lyrics talk of a better place than these current situations which is possibly where the title of the novel comes from. They are all looking for another country where differences don’t tear people apart.

Whether this country is physically geographical or spiritually in another realm is scattered throughout the characters’ conversations and Ida’s singing. Both concepts are brought together at the novel’s end when Eric’s French boyfriend, Yves, lands in the Big Apple:

…even his luggage belonged to him again, and he strode through the barriers, more high-hearted than he had ever been as a child, into that city which the people from heaven had made their home.

The novel references numerous song lyrics of which one is “Up Above My Head” written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
I really do believe, I really do believe there’s a Heaven somewhere…

Check out Rhiannon Gidden’s amazing version of this song right here. And also check out Baldwin’s amazing and highly relevant novel.