Posted in Short Stories

Mary Ann Taylor-Hall: Winter Facts

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 13

Because of the uncertainty of her situation, she had been till now mainly a forager. In the coming spring, she would evolve into a planter. She had gardens on the brain. She thumbed grandly through catalogues, making lists, sat up late drinking hot toddies and reading last year’s issues of Organic Gardening.

Or sometimes James Joyce.

The theme of “home” recurs frequently and not surprisingly in the stories included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs – home in all sorts of ways.

In Mary Ann Taylor-Hall’s story “Winter Facts”, home is a place it seems that Kate Gallagher has never been. In the midst of a crumbling marriage, she leaves the big city to live in an old rural farmhouse. While gardening and chasing her neighbor’s pony, she develops a life of community and a life of home.

The majority of the story is set in winter and coincides with getting a letter from her husband talking about divorce. It ends with a future Kate resting in the warmth of summer and in a new sense of belonging.

This isn’t a story full of happiness and in spite of the setting it’s not folksy. It doesn’t tug at any heartstrings or try to pull any emotional punches. But all in all, it’s a story that I would describe as pleasant. With details of the landscape and the gardens and the neighbors, Taylor-Hall subtly paints a portrait of a deceptively strong heroine.

She arranged wildflowers in jars, watched the shadows of leaves moving in the wind on the many-colored walls. That was euphoria, innocence. Now she was settled in with the winter facts of her situation.

I read this story when I selected the Ace of Clubs for Week 13 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

Gish Jen: Birthmates

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 12

I think I found a fictional soulmate in Art Woo, the protagonist in Gish Jen’s short story “Birthmates”. He’s a soulmate at least in the sense of his frustration with business trips and business conferences. I would never have guessed that this could be the setting for such a wonderful story.

Mild-mannered Art Woo winds up at a “well-fare” hotel when he attempts to save money while attending a conference for his job. Some unusual incidents occur at the hotel but Art’s inner thoughts about his job, the trip and the conference resonated with me the most. Such as this paragraph where he grapples with the issues of eating a croissant:

In truth, he had always considered the sight of men eating croissants slightly ridiculous, especially at the beginning, when for the first bite they had to maneuver the point of the crescent into their mouths. No matter what a person did, he ended up with an asymmetrical mouthful of pastry, which he then had to relocate with his tongue to a more central location, and this made him look less purposive than he might. Also, croissants were more apt than other breakfast foods to spray little flakes all over one’s dark suit.

Usually on business trips, I would have to eat lunch and dinner with colleagues in a suit so if at all possible I always wanted breakfast to myself. A business breakfast was never pleasant – the above quotation being an example of why.

I would also guess that Art is an introvert forever frustrated with the likes of his extrovert colleague Billy Shore who shares the same birth date with Art but not the same year. In the most fake manner, Billy always knows exactly what to say to people. Yes, I relate to Art’s frustration here, too.

And then there’s the upside down wisdom that Art realizes a little too late. Keeping your nose to the grindstone doesn’t always payoff:

There was Art, struggling to hold on to his job, only to discover that there were times you didn’t want to hold on to your job, times to maneuver for the golden parachute and jump. That was another thing no one had told him, that sometimes it spoke well of you to be fired. Who would have figured that? Sometimes it seemed to Art that he knew nothing at all, that he had dug his own grave and didn’t even know to lie down it it, he was still trying to stand up.

I’m pretty sure Art Woo will rank up there as one of the more memorable characters from my reading in 2020.

“Birthmates” is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Eight of Spades for Week 12 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.

Has anyone else read anything by Gish Jen. I’m very interested to know your thoughts!

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

Shirley Jackson: The Summer People

…the two old people huddled together in their summer cottage and waited.

It’s been a few decades since I read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery’ in high school but it made a memorable impression on me. However, I never knew much about her other work until I read something by Stephen King (I don’t remember what) that referenced her story “The Summer People”. Ever since, I’ve been on the lookout for it and was pleasantly surprised when it was included in The Best American Short Stories 1951 that I found at my library. After finally reading something else by Jackson, I thought I’d give this story it’s own post.

“The Summer People” covers some of the same themes as “The Lottery” – the problems of blindly following tradition and the horrors of mob rule. “The Summer People” perhaps is a kinder and gentler although still creepy version of these themes. This story focuses on the Allisons who want to break tradition and stay at their summer vacation spot past Labor Day but their summer community looks at this decision with shock and dismay because no one ever stays past Labor Day.

In “The Lottery”, Jackson doesn’t give us a lot of background but it doesn’t matter what we don’t know because what we do know is terrifying. On the other hand in “The Summer People”, it’s what we don’t know that makes our imagination run wild and provides the scary factor. It doesn’t matter what actually happens. We just know that with every statement made regarding nobody ever staying past Labor Day, the potential for terror increases.

I’m just glad the Allisons didn’t decide to stay after Labor Day AND wear white.

Posted in Short Stories

Lauren Groff: At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 11

He breathed his inadequacy out there, breathed in her love and the grease of her travels and knew he had been lucky; that he had escaped the hungry darkness, once more.

Lauren Groff’s short story “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” is a happy story with a lot of sadness – maybe hopeful is a better description than happy.  Jude lives in Florida with his reptile loving father and his reptile hating mother. As one might expect, Jude’s family life isn’t a good one; however, he survives it in spite of some tragic turns.

The story spans a significant portion of Jude’s life. It’s this aspect, in addition to a melancholy but hopeful tone, that makes this story reminiscent of Alice Munro. Groff fits into a short story what lesser authors would need to fit into a novel.

I don’t know exactly where the title might come from but I’m guessing that it could be the idea that while the earth is round perhaps some lives feel like it wouldn’t take much for them to fall off the edges or the four corners. At least in Jude’s case, these metaphorical corners are imagined but the fear is very real.

The Florida landscape plays an important role in the story, too, which makes me wonder how many stories I’ve read that are set in Florida. I couldn’t think of many. This story is included in Groff’s National Book Award finalist collection Florida and it makes me want to read the rest of the book not just because it may be set in Florida, too, but also because of the great writing and story-telling this new-to-me author appears to possess.

This story is also included in an anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.  This is the collection from which I actually read it. I selected it for my second wild card, the Two of Clubs, for Week 11 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.

Have you read anything by Lauren Groff? What stories have you read that are set in Florida?

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

The Best American Short Stories 1951 – Part 1

He stood silently. He stood silently in the dark. He stood silently in the dark with his own.

-from “Sense of Direction” by Leonard Casper

…is a college graduate a better Christian? Was Jesus a college graduate? These are some things to think about.

-asked by Hattie Clegg in “Her Breath Upon the Windowpane” by William Goyen

Here are some thoughts on the stories I’ve read so far from The Best American Short Stories 1951 edited by Martha Foley.

Flight Through the Dark by Roger Angell – A father waffles between hope and despair during the beginning of the atomic age. The story is a depiction of his decision to choose hope – especially the way that his life doesn’t just all of a sudden change for the better. It’s a definite decision on his part to be hopeful.

Inland, Western Sea by Nathan Asch – Lots of characters on a bus all with different stories and all reacting to a family in need (also on the bus).  It has a minor surprise at the end that is also one of the funniest endings I’ve read in a long time.

A Fugitive From the Mind by Peggy Bennett – As a child, an accident while playing sends Ezzie Bard on a search for redemption. Maybe he finds it at his country church in North Carolina – or maybe not. Powerful in its ambiguity and in its final line: “Few youths came harder to morality.”

The End of the Depression by Mary Bolte – The resilience of children push their father to get through the Great Depression. Similar to “Flight Through the Dark” just different American era, different American tragedy.

In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks by Hortense Calisher – Read this one previously. Posted about it here.

Sense of Direction by Leonard Casper – A father and a son both take harrowing journeys. Toward each other.

Larchmoor is Not The World by R. V. Cassill – A cynical male professor of an all-girls college attempts to help a student. Is the professor’s cynicism appropriate or not? It’s hard to say but it’s a fascinating question to ponder. Of this group of stories, I think he’s my favorite character.

The Season of Divorce by John Cheever – Nothing says marital trouble like a potted geranium thrown across the room. And few authors write about marital trouble better than John Cheever.

The Hunters by Harris Downey – Separately, two American soldiers lose their company in France. One ceases to care what side he is on and just wants to hunt. One still cares but hunts anyway. This was my least favorite of this group of stories.

The Temperate Zone by Elizabeth Enright – Emma spends her days with her newborn son looking out of her cabin at the frozen tundra thinking of her home with palm trees. The reader doesn’t know exactly where Emma is or exactly where she came from or why she moved north. It might have something to do with her husband, Lars.

The Kingdom of Gordon by J. Carol Goodman – Six year-old Gordon gets his clerical father and God a little mixed up. An odd, yet oddly satisfying, story.

The Value of the Dollar by Ethel Edison Gordon – A middle-aged widow travels to Mexico and can’t seem to shake a serape salesman. This wasn’t a favorite, either.

Her Breath Upon the Windowpane by William Goyen – Hattie Clegg seems to always be at the bottom of the social ladder while helping to raise her siblings and supporting her parents. Her lack of education doesn’t seem to hurt her, though. Except socially. She’s another favorite character in this group of stories

Of this group of stories, my favorites based on my own likes and dislikes would be “Sense of Direction” and “Inland, Western Sea”.

Up next is “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson. I’m looking forward to finally reading this. It might get its own post. We’ll see.

See my previous post on Why Am I Reading The Best American Short Stories 1951?

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Libraries, Short Stories

Why Am I Reading The Best American Short Stories 1951?

Because it was there. On the shelf. At my library.

I picked it up and started reading the introduction by editor Martha Foley and was just a little curious when I read the first sentences:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

Right off the bat, I wanted to let Martha know that we’re still here, seventy years later – I mean as a human race.

Does the possibility of getting blown up still exist?

Well – yes, yes it does.

I don’t know whether Martha was a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person.

And then this interesting little bit of opinion:

…they have been abetted by the practice of “reader surveys.” After the last presidential election fiasco, it seems incredible that the pollsters should still be with us.

I’m assuming Martha is referring to the presidential election of 1948 that resulted in this famous photograph:

truman

Just in case anyone is wondering, Truman actually won.

And yes, Martha, the pollsters are still with us.

Then I was wonderstruck at the book itself. I don’t know if they ever reprint these collections but I’m guessing this one is an original – even with the pocket that held the card that would get stamped with the date of return back before the on-line age.

 

After the introduction, came the table of contents listing the short stories that Ms. Foley selected as the best of the year. One of them I happened to have recently read: Tennessee Williams’ “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.”

Continuing to scan, several other stories have been included in my past reading – “In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks”by Hortense Calisher and “Death of a Favorite” by J. F. Powers.  Also included was Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People”, a story I’ve heard about frequently but have never read. And then the list included other new-to-me stories by authors I’ve read before such as John Cheever and Bernard Malamud.

By this time, I decided I had to check it out and read the whole thing. The librarian scanned it out because, after all, this really is the twenty-first century. But I was secretly hoping they would stamp a card and put it in the little pocket at the front of the book.

So look forward to a few more posts as I read through the rest of the stories in this collection.

And kudos to the Kenton County Public Library of Kentucky for letting me find this gem.

 

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Birthmark

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 10

…our creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne often does, his short story “The Birthmark” melds together the material world and the spiritual world. And also as he often does, he doesn’t bring them together in perfect harmony.

“The Birthmark” is a story in which the reader gets a feeling from the beginning of what is probably going to happen and at least this reader wasn’t surprised. But then, it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne – so the reader still wants to go with him even if they know where he’s going.

Aylmer, a brilliant scientist, is puzzled by the birthmark on his wife’s face – a face that is otherwise perfect. He concocts a potion that will take away the birthmark when his wife drinks it. Meanwhile, Aylmer’s strange assistant Aminadab looks disdainfully on like some kind of Igor.

The heavens and the earth, the flesh and the spirit become antagonists down to the bitter end when the reader can’t help but ask Aylmer “What were you thinking!” or in the words of Aminadab “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark.”

This story is included in the collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it when I selected the Jack of Hearts for Week 10 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.

Do you have a favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne story?