Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: State Change

I have no candle to burn at both ends. I won’t measure my life with coffee spoons. I have no spring water to quiet desire, because I have left behind my frozen bit of almost-death. What I have is my life.

More magical realism in Ken Liu’s “State Change” although I might go a little further and call it metaphorical realism if there is such a thing. I’ve also heard that all fiction is metaphor. I can go with that, too. This is a great story, so just go read it and decide for yourself!

Rina’s soul is an ice cube. She reads things like T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s soul is coffee and he measures it out with coffee spoons or at least he does in a poem Rina’s reading.

Rina makes some discoveries about what it means to lose your soul and what it means to save your soul and the paradox involved in these activities.

This story? Brilliant even if it didn’t have the “Prufrock” reference but all the better for including it.

Posted in Short Stories

Rosellen Brown: How To Win

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 39

Rosellen Brown’s short story “How To Win” is quite remarkable in the way it gets the reader to change their mind about the protagonist narrator.

Margaret is the mother of Christopher. While we never get an actual diagnosis (the story was published in 1975), Christopher appears to suffer from some sort of behavioral disorder. As Margaret describes her life with her son, we initially think she is simply an overwhelmed new mother with a rather active kindergartener. We also may even think she is exagerrating much the way her husband, Howard, does.

As she gets closer to taking Christopher to school, we see what those outside of Christopher’s family see and realize Margaret is not exaggerating and we begin to feel guilty ourselves about what we thought of Margaret. We even get through the guilt and feel the anger and frustration that Margaret feels at a school and society that refuses to acknowledge those who can’t simply fall in line:

Every day they walk on his neck, I see that now, but he will never tell me about it. I weep but cannot move.

This story is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ten of Spades for 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 Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Bookmarking Habits of Select Species

“The Bookmarking Habits of Select Species” is the initial story in Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and it perhaps serves as an introductory story. I can’t be sure as I haven’t yet read all of the stories, but I like the way it promises something great even if it’s not as plot driven as one might expect.

The story consists of various fictional beings, cultures, societies and how they collect information, store information and remember information. All of it in great imaginary detail with a conclusion that I don’t think I’m spoiling by revealing:

Everyone makes books.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Paper Menagerie

Folding the creases, I refolded the paper back into Laohu. I cradled him in the crook of my arm, and as he purred, we began the walk home.

I’ve heard quite a lot about Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie”. I plan on reading all of the short stories in Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories but to start, I went right to the title story and I wasn’t disappointed.

This is one of the best uses of magical realism I’ve read. The magical part gives it a gentle feeling that perfectly tempers the harsh realism. Jack, the protagonist, suffers the harsh regret of realizing how much he hurt his mother while growing up. He also comes to the gentle realization of how much his mother loved him in spite of this. This realization might come too late but if one is discovering the truth, maybe it doesn’t matter when it’s discovered. Maybe that’s what is magical.

This one’s a favorite.

I plan to post about the rest of the stories in this collection as I read them, but I highly recommend at least finding this one and reading it.

Posted in Uncategorized

James Baker Hall: If You Can’t Win

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 38

…the letters tortured and jumbled up and painfully beautiful: I hope I win but if I don’t I hope my effort is courageous – when I see that I say amen.

The narrator of James Baker Hall’s short story “If You Can’t Win” is a doctor married to a gas station attendant. She is attempting to take care of her best friend’s mentally disabled adult daughter who has climbed on the roof because a horse died. The roof incident is the last draw.

The story is told in a very conversational manner and the fact that she is a doctor can take the reader by surprise. If the reader listens to the story, though, they can tell that the narrator has not only intelligence but perseverance, too. I would say that the effort in the quotation above is perhaps the theme of the story. This effort doesn’t come without pain. In spite of everything, she has more than muddled through.

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 Queen of Clubs for Week 38 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

World and Town by Gish Jen

Who are we, indeed. I cannot say you have convinced me, and if you will forgive me for putting on my scientist hat, I must point out that we humans are prone to superstition. We’re wired to seek cause and effect whether it’s there or not – to make “sense” of things even if the result is nonsense. But never mind. Insofar as your thinking appears to have little to do with the less tenable tenets of Confucianism, and more to do with tradition and hope and humility and coping…I will meet the bone picker this weekend.

The intricate plot of Gish Jen’s novel World and Town doesn’t seem to be anti-religion but it does point out what might be considered inconsistencies, hypocrisies and nonsensical aspects of the way many religion-followers go about their religion. The criticisms also are equal opportunity. More than just one religion come together for critical analysis.

Hattie Kong, the 70 year-old protagonist and scientist, considers herself Unitarian but is a member of a walking group with ladies of varying faiths: an ex-nun, a fundamentalist Christian, an evangelical Christian who is quick to point out she is different from fundamentalists. Hattie gets new neighbors in the form of a Cambodian family who are Buddhist and deals with her Confucian relatives in Hong Kong who want the remains of Hattie’s parents to be brought back to Mainland China to be buried.

While the combining of all these religions can seem a little forced at times, I have to give the author credit for making the characters all fully realized and not just stereotypes used to fit her purposes and ultimately telling a story worth telling.

Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: The Persistence of Desire

I’ve said before that John Updike is the best author I know who writes about characters I don’t like. I base this on only a handful of short stories and one novel. So when I selected his short story “The Persistence of Desire”, I thought I knew what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. I still don’t necessarily like the protagonist but he managed to put a smile on my face.

With dilated pupils, Clyde sneaks into Janet’s room attempting to rekindle the flame. I always have a thing for good physical comedy and if an author can do physical comedy with the written word then even better – and, here, Updike is even better!

While not really interested in Clyde, Janet is at least amused and asks a fairly obvious question:

“Clyde, I thought you were successful. I thought you had beautiful children. Aren’t you happy?”


To which Clyde classically replies:

“I am, I am; but” – the rest was so purely inspired its utterance only grazed his lips – “happiness isn’t everything.”

I think “happiness isn’t everything” could be the mantra for all of Updike’s stories or at least the ones I’ve read.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Three of Spades for 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 Short Stories

Richard Cortez Day: The Fugitive

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 36

“My name is Furman…Matthew Furman.”

“Whatever it is, I hope you’ll mend your ways. A smart man don’t need but one lesson. You ought to get a dog to replace the one you shot. It ain’t good to live as you do, a beast alone.”

“Preach on,” he said. “Preach to the birds and bushes all the way to Oregon.”

In Richard Cortez Day’s “The Fugitive”, two ships pass in the night but its not the one-night stand sort although that is initially the intention of Matthew Furman, the protagonist. He stops to help a woman stranded by the side of the road in small town California, recognizes her Kentucky accent, and starts with the one-liners and made up stories and made up names.

She stays with him at her cabin but she is a little more than he bargained for with her preaching and cleaning and criticism of his lifestyle. And Matthew remains more of a gentlemen than either of them would be willing to recognize. They part ways with the above quotation.

The story and both characters are written with a poignant realism that allows for both Matthew and the unnamed woman to at least come to an understanding that the other has an impact on them even if they barely admit it to themselves let alone each other. It’s this slow and subtle realization that makes this an enjoyable reading experience.

As to which one is the title character? Good question.

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories. I read it when I selected the King of Clubs for Week 36 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

The Resisters by Gish Jen

While there is all kinds of social commentary in Gish Jen’s dystopian novel The Resisters, for some reason it reminded me of the Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch as a kid. In spite of the seriousness of the ideas presented, Jen uses subtle and not so subtle humor to make the science fiction aspects fun. However, the science fiction is so close to non-fiction that the dystopian parts become anything but fun.

At the center of it all is baseball, a game that had been eliminated from public life but the Surplus (poor people) start an underground league. Gwen, the daughter of Grant, the narrator, has a pitching gift that her father works hard to develop in secrecy.

Meanwhile, the Netted part of society (rich people) decide to bring baseball back as the Official American Pastime – mostly to compete with ChinRussia in the Olympics. Gwen is discovered and tons of blackmail, manipulation, fights for freedom, suspense, betrayal and thrills ensue.

To me, the best humor came in the form of the house belonging to Gwen and her family. With AI pushing full steam ahead, their house talks to them and interrupts their conversations and acts like an unwanted relative.

More than occasionally, Jen throws in fun literary references such as Gwen’s teammates being named Joe March and Warren Peese and the serious references that tie to the the story and themes:

Like have you ever heard of this book, Michael Kohlhaas? – which Coach says is his favorite book because Michael Kohlhaas is just so stubborn! And when I said he sounded like Bartleby the Scrivener, he said that was exactly right, and isn’t it amazing how interesting we find characters who say no? In life we like people who say yes, but in books we like people who say no, he said. Which is just so true, don’t you think? I think maybe he used to be a professor.