Posted in Short Stories

Jane Stuart: The Affair With Rachel Ware

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 48

Whenever some new couple moved into the community and asked about the house next door, they’d be told, Oh, yes, the Wares used to live there…They moved, of course. She was having an affair with Harry Thomas….He still lives here.

Harry Thomas’s complete lack of remorse for his affair with Rachel Ware provides the underlying humor to Jane Stuart’s short story “The Affair with Rachel Ware”. Harry narrates his “woes” about the inconvenience from his gossipy neighbors after his affair. Sometimes the humor borders on satirizing but most of the time it’s simply enjoyable comedy.

I say “most of the time” because the one odd aspect of the story is that Harry is an author of children’s books. He watches the children in the neighborhood (including Rachel’s) to find inspiration for his books and to find out what children are interested in. Nothing inappropriate happens (outside of the affair with the adult Rachel, I mean) but I thought it was a strange career for Stuart to give Harry. I think the story would have been just as humorous, maybe even more humorous, if Harry had been in advertising or sales of some sort. Stuart didn’t really have to give Harry any vocation and the story still would have been enjoyable.

This story is the penultimate story to finishing the collection Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Six of Diamonds for Week 48 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: All The Flavors

‘It’s all about the balance of flavors. The Chinese know that you cannot avoid having things be sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, mala, and whiskey-smooth all at the same time – well, actually the Chinese don’t know about whiskey, but you understand my point.’

At just under 100 pages, Ken Liu’s “All The Flavors” could be considered more of a novella than a short story but the length doesn’t matter because it’s such an enjoyable story – and depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of reader, it could be a very uplifting story – one that as a country or even a world, we need to read, now.

A young girl, Lily, and her Irish immigrant parents move to Idaho City shortly after the American Civil War. There, she befriends some Chinese immigrants of which Logan (his Americanized name), an older man, has quite an influence on her and her parents. Logan’s initial contribution to Lily’s world is the stories he tells about the Chinese God of War and the food he grows and prepares but it ends up being so much more.

Liu doesn’t paint this world as perfect. Racism exists and prejudice against people who are different permeates Lily’s society. Lily’s father jumps right in to the Chinese’ world and customs while Lily’s mother is afraid, skeptical and sometimes just plain rude. But one of the more uplifting aspects is the way Lily’s mother eventually – slowly- comes around to acceptance of the Chinese. If the story has to be as long as it is to realistically depict this change, then I would tell Liu to take all the pages he wants. It’s one of the happier plot points I’ve read recently.

I’ve only read a few stories in which food plays such a central part but Liu’s description of Logan’s recipes and preparation and enjoyment of eating is nothing short of mouthwatering.

Then we come to the end. The whole town celebrates Chinese New Year after which Logan is required to stand trial for a crime that he didn’t commit. The story ends before we hear the verdict. What might the verdict be? That’s where the pessimism or optimism of the reader comes in to play. It really could go either way.

While not showing a world through rose-colored glasses, Lui has Logan land on the side of optimism, on the side of hope. Before knowing the verdict, he describes his knew home to Lily:

‘This is where I have finally found all the flavors of the world, all the sweetness and bitterness, all the whiskey and sorghum mead, all the excitement and agitation of a wilderness of untamed, beautiful men and women, all the peace and solitude of a barely settled land – in a word, the exhilarating lift to the spirit that is the taste of America.’

Engaging with something or someone new and different doesn’t have to be scary. This is just a plain old good story. Maybe its because of all the food, but it has a Thanksgiving feel. Since it’s Thanksgiving here in the US, I’ll say “Happy Thanksgiving” to you wherever you might be!

Posted in Short Stories

Ernest Hemingway: The Mother of a Queen

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 47

I told him what I thought of him right there on the Gran Via, in front of three friends, but he speaks to me now when I meet him as though we were friends.

In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Mother of a Queen”, Paco is a gay prize fighter (hence the title) who has an issue with money. His mother was buried in a temporary grave and now the payment is due to make it a permanent one (I didn’t know this was a thing). Roger, his manager or partner (or maybe both) offers to take care of it but Paco doesn’t want him to – but yet he doesn’t either. This burial situation came about because of a previous manager who was also a romantic partner.

As morbid as it sounds, I found the story interesting in that it’s a snippet of a situation. As with many Hemingway stories, we know a bunch of stuff happens before the story and a bunch of stuff happens after the story. In spite of knowing Paco’s sexuality, the ambiguity of his and Roger’s relationship makes for an interesting question.

But this story is no “Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

And also, no, by today’s standards, this is not a politically correct story, but the more I read Hemingway, I’m not convinced he was all that politically correct by the standards of his own time.

This story is included in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I read it when I selected the Nine of Hearts for Week 47 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: Mono No Aware

And we walk together down the street, so that we can remember every passing blade of grass, every dewdrop, every fading ray of the dying sun, infinitely beautiful.

Ken Liu’s story “Mono No Aware” finds a beauty in life’s transcience, in life’s shortness, in it’s finite aspects. Liu seems to find as much beauty in these concepts as he does in eternity and immortality in the story “The Waves” that I posted about yesterday.

In fact, one could ask the question, which does Liu consider more beautiful? I don’t think a concrete answer would be forthcoming. That could be why he wrote two very similar stories that grapple with concepts that at least seem to be different.

There’s more family love here, too. This time, instead of the ever present, never ending kind of love in “The Waves”, it’s the kind of love that is willing to end or willing to be sacrificed for another.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Waves

There was no more line between the ghost and the machine.

Bits of sea foam floated up and rode the wind to parts unknown.

Ken Liu’s story “The Waves” uses a trip through space to illustrate the concepts of beginnings and endings and immortality and eternity. Maybe concepts that are inherent in every story we tell whether they are hidden or, as in this story, obvious.

The characters make decisions regarding when to begin and when to end. They tell stories about origins from many different cultures and times. In spite of changes over what could be eons, a mother’s love for her husband and children doesn’t end.

Many of Liu’s stories in this collection deal with familial love or in some cases the lack thereof. The love in this story is quite powerful.

The next story in this collection, “Mono No Aware”, is similar in content, could be considered the opposite in ideas, but family love? Yes, it’s still there. Look for a post about this one, tomorrow.

Posted in Short Stories

Harlan Ellison: Paladin of the Lost Hour

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 46

Billy Kinetta wanted to assume the responsibility for saying thanks, but that was possible only on a night that would never come again; and this was the day.

One scene in Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour” stands out to me. Billy Kinetta, a recently returned Vietnam vet, brings home a Toys “R” Us bag with Transformers and proceeds to play with them on the floor of his apartment with his newfound friend, the elderly Gaspar. Something so touching gives the friendship an innocence that sheds a wonderful light on a wonderful story. The speculative (I think that’s the right word) part of the story is important and fascinating but the friendship stands out. It’s one of the best friendships I’ve read about in a long time.

This story comes recommended by Katherine at The Writerly Reader and I now want to read more of Ellison’s stories. I read this one when I selected the Two of Hearts as a wild card 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: An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition

While the title story of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is still my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far, “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” could be a close second and depending what mood I’m in, the two might be tied.

As formal as the title of this story sounds, I don’t think I’ve read a science fiction story that is this wrought with emotion. A sense of loss and a sense of love permeate this story as a mother pursues a dream. Lui brilliantly lets the reader sympathize with the entire family:

Before their merger, they each yearned for the other; as they part, they part from the self. The very quality that attracted them to each other is also, inevitably, destroyed in their union.

Whether this is a blessing or a curse is much debated.

There are many ways to say I love you in this cold, dark, silent universe, as many as the twinkling stars.

The possibility of tears exist here.

Posted in Short Stories

Stanley Elkin: Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 45

He saw the men in the restaurant. The criers, ignorant of hope, the kibitzers, ignorant of despair. Each with his pitiful piece broken from the whole of life, confidently extending only half of what there was to give.

In Stanley Elkin’s “Criers and Kibitizers, Kibitzers and Criers”, Jake Greenspahn has just lost his adult son. We’re never told exactly how Harold dies but, to say the least, his death has put Greenspahn in a grumpy mood as he returns to the grocery story he owns. One gets the idea, though, that Greenspahn wasn’t exactly a happy person prior to this family tragedy.

The interactions between Greenspahn and his employees, his customers and the regulars at his lunch establishment all have dialogue that makes the reader feel like they are actually there in the store or restaurant. He puts everyone in one of the categories mentioned in the title and explained in the above quotation. Everyone falls under hopeful or desperate. Greenspahn seems to want something in between – somewhere between the sunny side and the dark side. In his grumpiness, the reader gets the idea that Greenspahn tries very hard to reach some level of hope. His meeting with his rabbi at the end of the story might point him in the right direction but it doesn’t wrap anything up. I don’t think Greenspahn is looking for a wrap-up.

The charm of the story comes with our ability to empathize with Greenspahn even if we don’t necessarily like him or agree with his feelings and actions toward people – we still want to journey along with him.

This story is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 45 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.

Incidentally, this story finishes up this anthology for me. I started it several years ago and have included selections from it in my Deal Me In lists. If I had to pick out favorites, they would be “In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliott Dark, “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow and “Death of a Favorite” by J. F. Powers. There are lots of other great stories included, though. Check it out!

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Regular

I found Ken Lui’s “The Regular” interesting in that I had to keep going back to the title page of the story to make sure I was reading the title correctly. In the story, there is a machine called a Regulator that law enforcement use to keep their emotions at bay. It’s a sort of anti-depressant machine. There is also a mention of the term “regular” in referring to the customers of prostitutes. And finally, this statement:

It has always been the regular state of things. There is no clarity, no relief. At the end of all rationality, there is simply the need to decide and the faith to live through, to endure.

As rough as this story might sound, and it is a rough one, it’s also the most entertaining one that I’ve read from this collection so far. It’s a futuristic Law and Order or CSI. And when I say futuristic it doesn’t seem that far into the future. The technology involved only seems a decade or so away – if that long.

A bionic (for lack of a better term) investigator takes on the case of a murdered prostitute who has her own “super” technology in the form of a camera. In spite of all the societal changes, government officials and international dignitaries still don’t want it public knowledge that they utilize the services of prostitutes.

Looking for a great suspenseful crime drama? Check out this story.

Posted in Non Fiction

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War by Michael Gorra

For what strikes me is…[the] whipsaw contradiction, the desire to have his world both ways and all ways, and without ever needing to decide. To suspend choice, as though each position were a character and what mattered to the novelist was the quarrel between them. They speak to us of a riven soul; of a battle in which the right side doesn’t always win and he fights others as a way of fighting himself; of the civil war within him. The human heart against itself: it was always his best subject.

Since stumbling upon some rather old William Faulkner novels on my shelf when the pandemic started and my library was closed, I’ve been somewhat intrigued by both the writing and the man. I admit that his writing is not easy to take in but the more I read the more it seems worth it. So I was excited when I saw that Michael Gorra had a book coming out titled The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. I was hoping he might shed some light on Faulkner’s works that would help me as I read more. And he did.

I’ve been fascinated by the question as to whether a work of art can stand separate from its artist. Can a novel stand separate from its author? I have always leaned in the direction that, yes, the art and the artist can be separate. While Gorra doesn’t specifically ask this question, he does present Faulkner as an artist whose own views are many times contradicted (to the positive) in his work.

Through matching up events from the actual American Civil War with the events of Faulkner’s fictional world of Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, Gorra shows the struggle for individuals in the south to come to terms with their southern-ness and what that actually means and how to move forward. Gorra cites examples of Faulkner’s public life in which it’s easy to see him as a southern white Jim Crow influenced male when it comes to race relations. In his novels, though, Faulkner allows himself to question his beliefs and upbringing to the point that his art points more toward race reconciliation than he did as a person. Gorra attests to this also using plenty of examples from Faulkner’s fiction.

Occasionally, Gorra throws out his own opinion about something without backup but his overall theories are well-supported. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for some insight into Faulkner – both the man and his works.