…I didn’t understand Uncle Wallace hardly myself; I didn’t understand why he sang folk songs when he could sing rock-and-roll or jazz. So how the hell could he be my voice or the voice of anybody like me? But that’s what this writer said anyway.
It’s not uncommon for story-tellers, song-writers, poets, authors and other artists to present their art from a point of view different from themselves. I saw an interview with alt-country singer Jason Isbell and author George Saunders in which Isbell says one of his greatest pet-peeves is when fans automatically assume if he has written a song and sings it in first person its about him. Of course anyone who is interested in fiction, song-writing or poetry understands that its part of the art form to tell stories about varying characters.
Still, if someone like Uncle Wallace in William Melvin Kelley’s “Cry For Me” moves to New York City in 1957, visits a coffee shop in Greenwich Village and hears someone sing a song he wrote while working on a farm living in the south twenty years ago and its obvious the singer doesn’t know anything about working a farm, it could be a little offputting.
And it can make for a hilarious story – one that could become a favorite and one that makes me want to read everything else Kelley has written.
The story is narrated by Uncle Wallace’s nephew, Carlyle, who I’ve met before in Kelley’s story “Carlyle Tries Polygamy”. This Carlyle is a little younger and would probably have difficulty balancing adult relationships with two women at the same time. But one can see that older Carlyle in the making in “Cry For Me”.
Carlyle’s narration is light, funny, rambling, observant in his own way and lets us in on Uncle Wallace’s brief time in the musical spotlight – bringing together people of all races even if its only for a night. It’s a night Carlyle plans on remembering.
“Cry For Me” is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the Eight of Spades in my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
Then he stood up and raised the lantern – a tall, lean old man, breathing easily and lightly.
‘I reckon we can go back to town now,’ he said.
William Faulkner’s “The Tall Men” lets the reader see the McCallum family of Yoknapatawpha County through the eyes of an outsider and similar to “Shingles for the Lord”, there’s an oddness and a humor to their antics and ramblings although this humor is darker.
It’s interesting that this outsider happens to be a government employee. It allows for the reader to see the peculiarity of the family but at the same time sympathize with them.
With only the first three of Faulkner’s stories read from this collection, if they continue to be this good, I can’t wait to read the rest of them.
James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone tells the story of Leo Proudhammer and his rise to acclaim as an African-American actor along with his relationships which include his brother Caleb, Barbara, a white actress and Christopher, a younger black man. The story is told mostly in flashback form after Leo suffers a heart attack.
As with all of Baldwin’s novels, racism in America is always present. Sometimes front and center, sometimes in the background but there is no getting away from it and its effects on the novel’s characters.
Leo deals with it through his art and Caleb deals with it through religion. One of the more fascinating conversations between the two of them compare and contrast art and religion bringing understanding to the disagreements between the brothers.
Given the use of religion throughout history to justify racism, its not surprising that many of Baldwin’s characters have a defiance toward anything religious as Leo does in this novel. At the same time, Baldwin tends to use religious imagery when thinking forward to a potential time when perhaps racism doesn’t have to exist. Whether this time is something literal and physical or something spiritual Baldwin leaves up to the reader but the concept is there:
This groaning board was a heavy weight on the backs of many millions, whose groaning was not heard. Beneath this table, deep in the bowels of the earth, as far away as China, as close as the streets outside, an energy moved and gathered and it would, one day, overturn this table just as surely as the earth turned and the sun rose and set. And: where will you be, when that first trumpet sounds?
‘And what did the white folks pay you to turn Graham in and clear the way? Disturber of the peace. What peace? Racist trying to incite a riot. Ain’t that how they said it? Outside agitator, as you said. And his roots put down here long before you ever came. When you were just a twinkle in Darwin’s eye.’
Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Organizer’s Wife” uses a density in writing style to bring the story to an angry crescendo on the part of the title character. By dense, I mean that while there are many words in the story, it’s not a wordy story: every word is needed for the ultimate confrontation between Virginia and the church man who has sold out the co-op and the community who desire to use it to gain a foothold in the world.
Bambara also uses the image of Virginia carrying her baby on her back as she makes the long hike to see the church man to emphasize both the oppression she is living under and the hope they have for a future.
And then there is the garden the co-op members, including Virginia and her husband, keep – through dry-spells, hard work and razor-sharp purpose, ploughing through despair, they keep it going.
“The Organizer’s Wife” is included in the anthology Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke. I read it when I selected the King of Clubs for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
I had to move on to the second story in William Faulkner’s Collected Stories to get the comedy that I thought would be in the first story “Barn Burning”.
“Shingles for the Lord” presents the shenanigans of the small-town locals trying to fix the roof of the church. Arguments ensue about who works harder, who owes who in a job that they are suppose to be doing for free (it’s the church after all). It becomes like con men trying to swindle each other by making change when nobody has anything anyway – except for half a dog, maybe.
And then Res Grier (the story is narrated by his son who doesn’t really understand any of this), attempts to make his neighbors work harder by sneaking to the church at night to rip off some of the shingles. Sparks fly – literally.
In the middle of the story, the Reverend Whitfield makes an observation to himself as to what God might think of all this:
And why He should turn around for the poor, mizzling souls of men that can’t even borrow tools in time to replace the shingles on His church, I don’t know either. Maybe it’s just because He made them. Maybe He just said to Himself: ‘I made them; I don’t know why. But since I did, I Godfrey, I’ll roll My sleeves up and drag them into glory whether they will or no!’
From what I’ve read of Faulkner, mostly novels, I know he can brilliantly write about horrific aspects of humanity. It’s fascinating to me to know that he can just as brilliantly write about the same people with a wink and a twinkle in his eye.
Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden there for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.
In “The Gilded Six-Bits”, Zora Neale Hurston uses a fake gold coin to contrast a very real (not necessarily perfect) marriage. Joe and Missie May have fun, enjoy each other and have one of the better fictional marriages that I’ve read in a while. The title object plays a role in what could bring down their marriage but ultimately Missie May realizes the gold is fake and her marriage is real.
At the end of the story, an off-the-cuff comment made by a white owner of a store frequented by Joe adds to the contrast. Unfortunately, fake ideas make racism real but at least in this story Joe and Missie May’s love seem to have the upper hand.
This story is included in the collection Hitting a Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick. I read it when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for Week 3 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese.
The first line of William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” immediately struck me as funny. Although the continuation of the story doesn’t continue the humor I initially thought might be there, the first line does present the reader with what they will at least begin to understand is a common situation that the young boy noticing the odor experiences. He has been in courtrooms like this before. Perhaps he begins to distinguish them by how they smell.
The boy is Colonel Sartoris Snopes, known as Sarty and named after a famous Civil War figure from the area. What is brilliant about Faulkner’s telling of Sarty’s story is that he so easily and realistically moves from Sarty’s defense of the crimes of his father Abner to his realization that maybe his family has some issues from which Sarty needs to separate himself. Faulkner speaks of the “old fierce pull of blood” as both a reference to family loyalties and to Abner’s crimes.
This is a fantastic story that probably warrants another reading (as is the case with so much of Faulkner’s work). It’s also (I believe) the beginning of the Snopes family saga that continues in other Faulkner works such as his novel The Hamlet. Powerful characters move the impact from simply emotional to altogether human.
This is the first story in Faulkner’s collection Collected Stories of which I’m planning to read in its entirety during 2021. I’ll also try to post about each story; however, while figuring out Faulkner is a big part of the fun of reading his work, I make the disclaimer that “figuring out” is what I will probably be mostly doing.
If you’ve already figured something out about Faulkner, feel free to jump in. I’m not a Faulkner expert but a Faulkner student and would love to hear your input.
He would tell a fib in a minute to help his cause. He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.
The first word that comes to mind when describing James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird is “rollicking”. It’s an adventure, it’s non-stop action, and in spite of the deadly serious topic, it’s fun and funny.
McBride fictionalizes the story of abolitionist John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, known as “Onion”, a slave boy pretending to be a girl to protect himself.
The narrator provides the story with a character that will do anything to survive: disguise himself, answer as a rebel or feign great courage in the abolitionist cause. His plan is to lose Brown and his “army” as soon as he can; however, much of the story’s fun comes from the continuous undoing of any opportunity “Onion” finds to ditch Brown’s men in spite of their moral cause.
In John Brown, himself, McBride provides the story with the deeper questions about how far should one take his moral duties. Can someone be so caught up in a cause that the line between morally righteous and lunacy is blurred?
To be clear on it, I weren’t afraid at that moment. In fact, I felt downright comfortable, ’cause for the first time, I knowed I weren’t the only person in the world who knowed the Old Man’s cheese had slid off his biscuit.
So Brown the abolitionist comes off as crazy with his never-wavering righteousness and “Onion” as a morally ambiguous voice of a slave just trying to save his own skin. It all weaves into story-telling magic.
At some point, I am planning on watching the Showtime Limited Series version of this novel. I’m hoping it won’t disappoint.
See our world through the shapes of clouds. Watch the blue of the Indian Creek sky. We hope that motherhood will swoop down on the backs of blue jays.
Kentucky author Crystal Wilkinson’s short story “Ritual” is only three pages long but is miraculous in how much beauty and poetry and life it contains. The narrator’s imaginings of potential motherhood encompasses remembrances of her childhood, a brief flashback to her wedding and the love she has for her husband who doesn’t fully understand her thoughts.
Based on this story, I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in Wilkinson’s collection Blackberries, Blackberries. I read this story when I selected the Six of Diamonds for Week 2 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
You can find lots of different posts in the book blogosphere about the benefits of book blogging. So I thought I would throw out my own thoughts.
Do I like it when my stats go up? Yes. Is it great to get another follower? Of course. Do I like comments? Absolutely! All of these things might fall under the category of interaction and community between and among other people who like to read books as much as I do. And, yes, that’s an excellent reason to blog about books and one of the reasons I do it and a major reason why many others do it.
But there are reasons I continue blogging outside of the community aspect that are just as important to me.
First, I don’t have a job or career that revolves around books or reading. I’ve often wondered how things would be if I had pursued a career related to books or literature but that hasn’t happened so blogging becomes an outlet for my thoughts about what I consider an important and fun part of my life – even if it is a hobby.
Second, because most of my life has to be organized, I don’t necessarily need my reading life to be that organized; however, I spent years reading and loving it without ever documenting anything about what I’ve read. I never kept a record of what I read outside of occasionally writing down quotations that would eventually go by the wayside. Blogging gives me a great format to organize and document what I’ve read and what I’ve thought about what I’ve read and saving it for future reference. I also utilize public libraries quite frequently so after I’ve returned the book, blogging allows me to remember and revisit what I’ve read. Every book I’ve read isn’t necessarily on my shelf so a blog post from the past can occasionally be helpful.
Can’t this be done on goodreads.com you might ask? Yes, but I find blogging allows for a little more creativity and it allows for an easier format in which to write about individual short stories as opposed to an entire collection. As I read a lot of short stories, that’s another benefit I find in blogging.
As the by-line for my blog says, this is “my reading journal”. It’s a journal that anyone can read and I definitely enjoy whenever someone else does. The followers and the likes and the comments increase the enjoyment of blogging but I find some practical benefits (that I also enjoy) outside of those.