Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash (Part 3)

…I’m beginning to believe that even in a fallen world things can sometimes look up.

– from “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth”

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And now here are my thoughts on the final 11 stories from Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories:

A Servant of History – A darkly funny take on the feuds that have occurred over the centuries in Appalachia – and Scotland.

Twenty-Six Days – A touching story about parents looking forward to their daughter’s return from Afghanistan.

Last Rite – Don’t expect this one to be a happy story and that brings up the question about which of these stories would one consider happy. Not many of them. The ones that are funny come the closest so far. This one’s not.

Blackberries in June – In this story, Rash succeeds in making me loathe one character. I get angry just like Matt after every comment his sister-in-law makes.

Chemistry – What a great story! I gave it a post of its own right here. And I take back my previous comment – this one comes the closest to being a happy story (so far) but its difficult to say it has a happy ending.

The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth – OK, this is the happiest story so far and its the funniest! If I had read just a little faster, this might have been my Easter story. Unfortunately, this is not far off the mark based on my church experience. But it’s still hilarious!

The Harvest – Short, poignant, sad. That hardness shows up again even among helpful neighbors. The neighbors understand this, though.

Badeye – Snakes show up again in this one as a result of the curiosity of an eight-year-old boy instead of religious purposes. The child as the narrator gives this story a certain charm as he tells of his mother’s great lengths to get him to see the errors of his ways.

Love and Pain in the New South – Very short and wonderful humor and it involves a monkey:

She had loved the monkey, and at first even loved me again. It was the Indian Summer of our marriage.

Shiloh – Already posted about this one here.

Outlaws – An author tells the story he wrote and then tells the real story and then meets one of the characters involved 40 years later. Not really a happy story.

Favorites from this group? Chemistry and The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth. I can’t pick one over the other. It depends on my mood.

There are some excellent stories in this group and I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve read so many enjoyable stories in one collection. I am a little sad that I’m finished. I’m pretty sure this collection will rank up there as a favorite this year.

Here are the posts for the rest of the stories:

Part 1

Part 2

 

 

Barbara Kingsolver: Stone Dreams (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 16)

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“When I went to college, which was supposed to make you feel, you know, uplifted, I felt like my loafers were screwed to the floor. The other students would ask these questions that made the professors pause and reflect, and they’d see symbolism without having it pointed out, but I just couldn’t conceive of anything beyond what I saw on the page. I kept thinking there was some explanatory brochure I’d forgotten to pick up during registration. Or maybe it was because they all lived in dorms and I lived at home. Those other girls probably sat around in the halls with their hair in rollers and talked about symbolism.”

In Barbara Kingsolver’s “Stone Dreams”, Diana goes on a trip to the Petrified Forest with her boyfriend, Peter, while her husband, Nathan, is at an eye doctor conference in Hawaii and her daughter, Julie, is visiting her grandmother in Kentucky.

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Diana tells the story and gives all kinds of great insights (see the quotation above) about her life, her daughter, and the two men with whom she is currently involved. Most of these insights are told to Peter about Nathan; however, she will stop and point out to the reader what she thinks of Peter.

Throughout Diana’s story, it’s not difficult to feel that she might be blaming the men in her life, specifically her husband, for her life’s lack of excitement or for her inability to mobilize any ambition – but she never quite gets there. That’s probably because I’m not convinced that the men are doing the stifling. Yes, Nathan’s interest in rocks (hence, the title) might take center stage in their marriage but I don’t think he is forcing her to have the same interests. She doesn’t have anything else so she gives in to the rocks.

I’m fascinated with Kingsolver’s ability to write conversations that are “conversational” but also give depth to the characters in the story. I feel like I’m hearing something casual until I finish the story and realize it was so much more.

“Stone Dreams” is included in Kingsolver’s collection Homeland and Other Stories which I borrorwed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Three of Clubs for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Ron Rash: Chemistry (A Short Story Easter Extra)

As I’m reading through Ron Rash’s short story collection Something Rich and Strange, a collection of short stories set in Appalachia over various time periods, I’ve been wondering (stereotypically, I know) whether snake handlers would show up. They do in his story “Chemistry”.  However, I didn’t expect them to be a part of such a poignant story or one that coincidentally would make me think about Easter.

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Teenager Joel begins the story as his father, a high school chemistry teacher, leaves the hospital after a mental breakdown. Recovering, the father goes back to work, takes up scuba diving and leaves his Presbyterian church to return to the Pentacostal church of his childhood.

While not portraying mental illness lightly, Rash paints the father as someone who now has a new lease on life, almost as someone who has been reborn. The contrast between old and new life accompanies a deeper look at the roles of knowledge and faith and asks the question whether faith is reasonable or unreasonable. He tries to explain this to his son:

“Your mother believes the holy rollers got me too young, that they raised me to see the world only the way they see it. But she’s wrong about that. There was a time I could understand everything from a single atom to the whole universe with a blackboard and piece of chalk, and it was as beautiful as any hymn the way it all came together.”

He includes a story of a newly found friend:

“There was nothing in this world to sustain him, so he had to look somewhere else. I’ve had to do the same.”

The father seems to have come to terms with what he believes and has found a peace for himself. Joel still isn’t sure but his father has made an impact on him or else, at least in my mind, he wouldn’t be telling the story. And I’m glad I’ve read Ron Rash’s story as I contemplate Easter today.

Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash (Part 2)

By the time I’m over the barbed-wire fence, I can look back and no longer tell what was and what is.

-from “The Woman at the Pond”

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Welcome to the second installment of my thoughts on the stories in Ron Rash’s collection Something Rich and Strange!

Where The Map Ends – A story that shows the complexities of the Civil War – specifically in this corner of North Carolina.

Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven – Another story about meth addiction framed around a haunted house. The ending was not what I was expecting. Meth addiction is a common occurence in these stories and the ones in which its the main focus are agonizing.

Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes –  More men in their 80’s and this time they are trying to catch a fish that nobody believes exists. This is one of the funnier stories in the collection-at least so far.

Falling Star – From the perspective of a husband who sees his marriage falling apart. The marriage doesn’t actually end during the story but the husband’s predictions seem very spot on.

The Magic Bus – 1960’s San Francisco meets 1960’s rural North Carolina – marijuana vs. tobacco. Who is the winner in the underlying conflict? That’s one of those book club questions. I’ll say North Carolina has a slight edge. But you can look at it from numerous perspectives.

Something Rich and Strange – The situation in one of the shorter stories in the collection gives an appearance of something supernatural. Whether that is truly the case I think is up to the reader.

The Dowry – This is a well-written story (as they all have been) with interesting Civil War- based characters, themes and moral questions. It just wasn’t my favorite. Certainly a church pastor can play a role in healing a community or family but this seemed to go a tad too far.

A Sort of Miracle – Denton’s dislike for the state of Florida is hilarious:

It was a wonder the Founding Fathers hadn’t just sawed the damn state off and let it drift away. A state where the most famous person went around pretending to be an eight-foot-tall mouse.

His brothers-in-law are named Baroque and Marlboro. Everyone knows where Marlboro’s name came from but nobody knows how Baroque was named. This reminds me very much of Tobias Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow” yet with its own spin.

The Corpse Bird – Mountain superstitions haven’t gone away even in the present time. I thought I knew where this story was headed but it didn’t quite get there.

Dead Confederates – Yes, grave robbing can be both funny and disturbing but I thought this one went on a little too long.

The Woman at the Pond – The reflections of the protagonist gave this story more power than the simple plot would have given it.

And for the favorite of this group? A Sort of Miracle.

 

 

Joe Ashby Porter: Yours (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 15)

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Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

I’m off newspapers for the moment and to fill the breakfast time this morning I plotted a graph of my life on a napkin.

From the beginning, we sense that the unnamed narrator in Joe Asby Porter’s short story “Yours” is talking to someone or perhaps writing a letter to someone. This could be a result of the title being a common closing for a letter. We also understand that the narrator is traveling or a more accurate description could be wandering. I’m reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings poem that says “Not all who wander are lost”. I think this describes the narrator. He’s wandered to Bardstown, Kentucky, the birthplace of his father.

This story also reminds me of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon”. Outside of the wandering, the reader doesn’t get much background or actual plot until the end of the story in which the idea that this is a letter is confirmed. The story reveals that some sort of break-up has occurred prior to the letter. It’s difficult to say whether the wandering is the result of the break-up or the break-up is the result of the wandering. Personally, I would go with the former.

A certain wacky bitterness exists in the narrator but we never wonder whether he has lost his sanity. He knows what he’s doing – even when he knocks on the door of a farmhouse for no apparent reason and is invited in for no apparent reason:

I just kept walking away from town, climbing fences and giving wide berth to the grazing cattle, happy not to see anyone for a couple of hours until I came to the navel of the universe, the Platonic idea of the farmhouse with dust and a yellow dog…

Then he tells the woman of the house the essence of the whole story but we only get this one little sentence:

I told Katie what I’d left, where I’d been, how when I’d begun wandering or fleeing I’d seemed to be reborn.

Fleeing? Hmmm… wonder what that means?

In a word, “Yours” is delightful. I read it when I picked the Five of Clubs for Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash (Part 1)

Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to mill workers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and godless. All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone.

-from “Night Hawks”

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I’m reading through Ron Rash’s collection Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories. The collection includes 34 of his stories, two of which I’ve already read and posted about. I’m doing mini-reviews of each story so as not to leave any of them out. I’ll try to cover them all in three posts. So here goes:

Hard Times – A story set in depression-era North Carolina with a chilling incident occuring in the middle of the story. The title definitely refers to the difficulties facing the families involved in the story but the “hardness” I think also refers to the manner in which some choose to deal with others including their own families.

Three A. M. and The Stars Were Out – I have more of an affinity, now, for two men in their 80’s delivering a calf than I would have thirty years ago. There’s both a sadness and a resilience to these men. Due to the mentioning of a cell phone at the very beginning, the reader understands the story is set in the present day.

The Ascent – The direction in the title I believe is imaginary. Reality seems to be headed the opposite way. This one was gut-wrenching.

Night Hawks – Any guess as to what painting Ginny and Andrew are talking about in the diner? I went back through the story several times just to see if it was mentioned and I had missed it. But I couldn’t find it. It’s a painting where a man and a woman aren’t looking at each other? Grant Wood’s American Gothic came to mind.

The Trusty – I think a good prison break story means you can’t trust anyone. This story is very good.

Back of Beyond – In spite of the close proximity within which families live in these stories and the decades they live with each other, there is a hardness that exists between them. And I figured out where Brushy Mountain is. I think there’s a prison there. At least there is in a song by Old Crow Medicine Show.

Lincolnites – Living in Civil War-era North Carolina, Lily is one brave girl. To say that she won’t be able to knit tonight is a huge understatement.

Into The Gorge – I posted about this story here.

Return – As a World War II soldier returns home to North Carolina, he steps off the bus and makes his way on foot to his parents’ home. Along the way, he reflects on events while he was in the Pacific. I like the way the story ends before he interacts with any of his family and friends. The story is all him.

Waiting for the End of the World – Devon is an ex-high school teacher who eeks out a meager living playing music at The Last Chance bar. The title references an Elvis Costello song of which Devon thinks highly, but I got a kick out of his analysis of the proverbial request for “Free Bird”:

Heads rise from tables and stare my way. Conversations stop. Couples arguing or groping each other pause as well. And this is the way it always is, as though Van Zant somehow found a conduit into the collective unconscious of his race. Whatever it is, they become serious and reflective.

Burning Bright – Loneliness is a frequent theme in these stories; however, Rash manages to make each one different with its own spin – including this one.

The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars – Self-imposed loneliness is in this one. It reminds me of an Alice Munro story. Ruth doesn’t mind the isolation. It gives her time to think about Jaquars and where they might have lived – among a lot of other things.

Of the stories in this post, my own personal favorite would be Three A. M. and the Stars Were Out with Waiting for the End of the World a very close runner-up.

 

The Cove by Ron Rash

The path slanted downward and the shadows deepened. She felt like she was wading into dark water, with little in the gloaming to anchor her to the world. Then she heard the flute, faint and far off, a sound she’d followed up the creek to its source three months ago…Follow it a while longer, Laurel told herself.

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In Ron Rash’s The Cove, Laurel Shelton has lived in the cove outside of Mars Hill, North Carolina her entire life. After her parents died and her brother Hank was conscripted to Europe during World War I, she lived there by herself. Now, though, Hank has come back from the war with only one hand but a diligence to make things good. It’s at this time that a stranger makes his way into their lives.

Rash expertly combines the beauty of the cove with its darkness and Laurel’s intense fear of loneliness. The loneliness is intensified by the fact that the people of Mars Hill superstitiously consider the cove to be filled with evil spirits and are afraid Laurel is a witch.

At the cove’s entrance, a tree has colored glass, bottles and cans hanging from it – an attempt to ward off these evil spirits or at least keep them inside the cove. The occasional mention of this tree reminds me that the plot of this story is not a new plot. It reminds me that human beings continue to fear that which they don’t understand or that which is different from themselves. They also continue to judge an entire group of people for the actions of a few.

The novel begins with a prologue set forty years after the events of the story. A human skull is found in an old well in the cove. Underlying the entire novel is the question to whom does the skull belong. It provides a wonderful mystery to the entire story.

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I enjoyed this novel and am now reading Rash’s collection of short stories Something Rich and Strange. I’m enjoying his short stories even more than the novel.