Posted in Short Stories

Sallie Bingham: Bare Bones

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 44

The bare bones writing of Sallie Bingham’s short story “Bare Bones” presents the loneliness of Lilly as she deals with her recent divorce. And the loneliness is out there in full force – nothing is hidden.

The story ends with this little simile:

You are twenty-six, and you are divorced, and you have a child. It was so strange, so small and hopeless – a revelation, yet small and hopeless. She turned the three facts over and over, like three pebbles in her hand. They were cool and solid and round, and she did not know what she would find to do with them.

I find it interesting that Bingham seems to know not only how to end this story but she knows when. The roughly eight-page story ends perfectly so as to invoke empathy from the reader for Lilly. If the story went any longer it would invoke pity – which is different.

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 Diamonds for Week 44 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 Short Stories

Ken Liu: Simulacrum

It’s not uncommon for science fiction stories to present the potential evils of technology – especially as it might occur for society and culture as a whole. Ken Liu’s story “Simulacrum” does just that but it also has a more intimate and familial impact. It’s one of the scarier stories I’ve read.

A father’s relationship with his daughter is damaged when he invents a simulacrum – a kind of hologram camera device combined with Artificial Intelligence. It can be used for all kinds of things, like pornography and an attempt to keep one’s daughter the way she was as a little girl after she grows up and realizes the sins of her father and his invention:

But my mother did not look into my father’s eyes the way I did when I walked in on him. It was more than a fantasy. It was a continuing betrayal that could not be forgiven.

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Roger Malvin’s Burial

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 43

The vow that the wounded youth had made, the blighted man had come to redeem. His sin was expiated – the curse was gone from him; and in the hour when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne.

I’ve come to the end of my Nathaniel Hawthorne stories (at least the ones in the collection I have – I don’t think its complete) with “Roger Malvin’s Burial”. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while but the Deal Me In fates decided to wait until the end.

The plot is fairly simple but what gives it an edge is the conversation and depth of feeling the story begins with and continues on until the end. While Reuben Bourne is racked by guilt for not doing right by his future father-in-law, Roger Malvin, and burying him after a bloody battle, I had to feel a little sympathy for him as his father-in-law encouraged him to leave him so that they wouldn’t both die. In fact the conversation between Reuben and Roger could be the entire story and I would still consider it great.

Reuben marries the daughter of his comrade but doesn’t tell her that he didn’t pay his final respects to her father. Reuben’s guilt turns him into a difficult man unable to live in their community to the point that they leave. After years of remorse, circumstances allow Reuben to gain redemption – but not after a great price has been paid.

If you are looking for great stories about sacrifice and redemption, look no further than this one.

This story is included in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it when I selected the Six of Clubs for Week 43 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 Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Literomancer

Ken Liu’s short story “The Literomancer” gets the award for best use of a live water buffalo. Lilly Dyer, a young American girl living outside a military base in Taiwan in 1961 is having a rough time adjusting to her new home. She jumps on a water buffalo and rides it into a nearby village and befriends not only the water buffalo but a boy her age and his grandfather.

Liu presents this part of the story with such charm and innocence. The relationship between Lilly and her new friends involves learning Chinese, eating new food and talking about American baseball. And Lilly continues to ride the water buffalo.

Not surprising, the super powers-that-be in the world destroy (and that’s the right word) this innocence and Lui masterfully moves from chldhood fun to horrific tragedy. In a biting bit of irony, Lilly’s father explains why the water buffalo has to find a new home:

“He won’t be happy. He won’t have a river to bathe in and rice paddies to wallow in. He won’t be free.”

On a side note, the title story of this collection gets the award for best use of an origami water buffalo.

Posted in Fiction

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin

Hall Montana, the narrator in James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, tells this story with all the joy and all the rage I’ve come to expect from Baldwin’s novels. He weaves both of these emotions together in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize one or the other but knows that both are embedded deeply into not just Hall but Hall’s family and friends, too.

The novel begins with the death of Hall’s gospel singer brother Arthur which allows Hall to recount the story of both of their lives. The brotherly love between Hall and Arthur is in the forefront of the novel and provides the bulk of the story’s emotional appeal. Secondary, but no less important, are the relationships between Hall and two different women and the relationships between Arthur and two different men. These relationships still powerfully support the bond between the brothers.

As in other Baldwin novels, gospel music lyrics get interspersed throughout the story. While the imagery in these songs adds both depth and atmosphere to the novel, it doesn’t turn it into a religious story. At the same time, Baldwin doesn’t erase the potential impact of the beliefs behind the music. Ultimately, Hall plows through a ton of emotion and a ton of reflection to come to his conclusion:

…how could we sing, how could we know that the music comes from us, we build our bridge into eternity, we are the song we sing?

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Egotism, or, The Bosom Serpent

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 42

…at his bosom, he felt the sickening motion of a thing alive, and the gnawing of that restless fang which seemed to gratify at once a physical appetite and a fiendish spite.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is a master at scary stories and “Egotism, or, The Bosom Serpent” shows off that mastery. Of the stories that Hawthorne wrote that might fall into the category of horror, I think this would be at the top of the list.

Roderick Elliston roams the dark streets of his village accusing people of their wrongdoing and suddenly they feel fangs biting into their chest. Elliston himself, though, has what the story could consider the greatest wrongdoing and as a result, he doesn’t just feel the bite but has the slithery beast as a part of him.

Hawthorne’s imagery of slithery scales, green eyes, sharp fangs more than makes up for the fact that in typical early 19th century fashion, he ends the story with a moral about Elliston’s misdeeds as a result of jealousy. A true horror genre might just keep to the scary mood and monsters but don’t rule this story out just because Hawthorne makes it sort of metaphorical.

This story is included in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it when I selected the Queen of Hearts for Week 42 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 Short Stories

Ken Liu: Good Hunting

Ken Liu’s “Good Hunting” morphs a traditional fairy tale into a modern machine age tale and in doing so brings up the notion that magic happens in anytime period:

I imagined her running along the tracks of the funicular railway, a tireless engine racing up, and up, toward the top of Victoria Peak, towards a future as full of magic as the past.

The young boy in the story develops a relationship with a hulijang – a kind of female ghost who bewitches men. It doesn’t seem she is able to bewitch the young boy but she manages to keep him as a friend long into the future. The young boy grows up and little by little becomes part of the industrial age. Though the hulijang might feel outdated, the grown up boy manages to keep her from becoming obsolete. As opposed to a bewitching on either part, both find the other mutually beneficial.

Posted in Short Stories

Leon V. Driskell: A Fellow Making Himself Up

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 41

Leon V. Driskell’s short story “A Fellow Making Himself Up” follows R. P. White (his given name) as he changes his name to Rosco because he doesn’t know what the R and the P stand for. This transformation may not be the type we would traditionally consider inspirational but as I continued reading I found myself nodding my head saying “Yeah, yeah…I get that”.

He gets tired of saying “R (only) P (only)” to everyone including Irma at the diner whom his family thinks he would have married if he had already changed his name to Roscoe. He apparently goes on to marry Pearl whom everyone thinks is better anyway.

The story is told in third person based on what uncle Lester knows about Rosco whom he refers to as uncle. It’s not clear who is uncle to whom. It’s seems like uncle Lester is telling this story to those younger than he is who call him uncle Lester and uncle Lester called Rosco “uncle”. The confusion adds to the fun of the story. These characters are included in Driskell’s novel Passing Through. Perhaps reading that might explain things.

In this story, Rosco makes his way through the Great Depression:

…it was the Great Depression, though Rosco told Lester that the only difference he could see between the Depression and what come before was that the Federal Government began to notice that folks were poor.

Driskell also wrote a book titled The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O’Connor. I can see an O’Connor influence on this story, maybe, but without O’Connor’s gothic characteristics.

This is another story included in the collection Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Three of Diamonds for Week 41 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

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The knowledge of good. That half of the primal catastrophe received too little attention. Guilt and grace met together in the phrase despite all that. He could think of himself as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth of meaning and trust, all of it offended and damaged beyond use, except to remind him of the nature of the crime. Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.

In a word, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack is beautiful. It’s proof that not only can she create warm, true, complicated characters of pastors who have been at their vocation for decades, she can also put the same complications, warmth and truth into the “rebel atheist” character.

This is the fourth Gilead novel and Jack Boughton has been a significant side character in the others. Now the reader gets to see more of Jack as he develops a bi-racial relationship with Della Miles. While the town of Gilead, Iowa is as close as the thoughts in Jack’s head, this novel is interesting in that it is physically set in St. Louis with a brief sojourn to Memphis.

The illegal romance between Jack and Della is so slow and subtle. The first roughly eighty pages of the novel is a conversation between the two set in a St. Louis cemetery in the middle of the night (where no one can see them). The contrast between the gravestones in the darkness and their conversation about what might be hope and goodness and life made it fine with me, as the reader, if this was simply the entire novel. With no demands, Della simply loves Jack to the point that Jack, on his own, wants to become a better person which might not be the type of love Jack receives from his father.

Both characters have to deal with their fathers. Both of whom are ministers and, as many fathers of any vocation might, put many expectations on their children. Della has a college degree and teaches high school at a prominent black school in St. Louis. She has been set up by her father, family and church as a model black woman exemplifying what can be accomplished when the black community comes together. Della isn’t always comfortable being this example but until meeting Jack, she goes along with it. Jack, on the other hand, has never fit in with what his father expects of him back in his home town of Gilead.

Their relationship carries with it real dangers from the 1950’s American society in which they live and real disappointments to Della’s family. At this point in the greater Gilead narrative, I don’t think Jack’s family and community are aware of Della. Until now, as readers, we only knew that Della exists because of a picture Jack carries with him. I admit that specifically in the novels Gilead and Home, it seemed that Jack could be interested in the Reverend John Ames’ wife, Lila – the subject of the third Gilead novel titled appropriately Lila. After reading Jack, I think it’s more likely that Jack is simply wondering who in Gilead might be accepting of Della and the relationship they have and Lila, being an outsider herself, could be that person.

In my understanding, Marilynne Robinson has not said how many Gilead novels she plans to write but I hope there’s more.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Perfect Match

I won’t mention any names but think of the names of the voices for any of the major virtual assistants and you know who Tilly is in Ken Liu’s short story “The Perfect Match”. Sai doesn’t mind that Tilly watches his apartment and knows his every move before he does but his neighbor Jenny does mind. In a way, Tilly ultimately brings them together. Does she know that this is really what Sai and Jenny want or does it just happen? That’s at least one of the questions the story asks.

Just like the house in Gish Jen’s novel The Resisters, Tilly has a slightly more intimate relationship with those she is “assisting” than the virtual assistants in our world – “slightly” being the key word here. Though on the surface, Tilly is trying to please Sai by understanding his interests and motives, could this turn into a form of oppression? That’s another question the story asks:

“Good night, Tilly. Please turn yourself off.”

The camera whirred, followed Sai to bed, and shut off.

But a red light continued to blink, slowly, in the darkness.