Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 38)

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It is the most glorious, and silliest, and freest I can remember feeling in years. Who would think that’s what I’d be saying with these strict, suffocatingly austere people come to visit our house. And then Deb, my love, once again she is thinking what I’m thinking and she says, face up into the rain, all of us spinning, “Are you sure this is okay, Shoshana? That it’s not mixed dancing? That this is allowed? I don’t want anyone feeling bad after.”

I selected the Two of Clubs for Week 38 of Deal Me In 2017 – my final wild card. So I selected an author whom I’ve heard of for a while now but have yet to read. It’s the title story from Nathan Englander’s 2012 short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories. 

nathan englander

The narrator’s wife has rekindled an old friendship via social media and has invited her and her husband to visit them in Florida. The narrator and his wife are secular Jewish while the visiting couple are now Hassidic.

Throughout the entire visit, as the reader, I kept thinking in terms of “so close, yet so far away”. Their conversation meanders all over the place from politics to philosophy to religion to history – but it never feels forced. Englander lets the reader know enough about the characters that the conversation is natural for this situation. One minute they are all on the same side with something in common. The next minute they are at odds with each other. This went back and forth to the point that it became something of a game trying to figure out whether they had more in common or more differences. Perhaps this was the point. I found it humorous that one of the activities they had in common was that they all four smoked pot. When the Hassidic husband is asked whether pot is kosher or not, he replies that he is smoking it not eating it.

As the title implies, the Holocaust becomes a topic during the visit and it leads to a rather awkward ending. I mean awkward for the couples not necessarily for the reader.

I borrowed this book from my public library. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Maeve Brennan: I See You, Bianca (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 37)

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At night the patterned ceiling seems to move with the flickering shadows, and in the daytime an occasional shadow drifts slowly across the tin as though it was searching for a permanent refuge. But there is no permanence here – there is only the valiant illusion of a permanence that is hardly more substantial than the shadow that touches it.

What is considered permanent and is there even any such thing? That’s the question that seems to be asked in Maeve Brennan’s 1966 short story “I See You, Bianca”.

The story consists of detailed descriptions of Nicholas’ New York house – somewhere close to Greenwich Village. We don’t know exactly how old Nicholas is, but I get the impression that he isn’t young. Perhaps not elderly, but not young. As the details flow, the reader understands that this house is old and may not be around much longer.

Nicholas doesn’t seem to have much in the way of family and friends. This lack of permanence morphs into a type of lonesomeness but its a lonesomeness that Nicholas appears to not mind. In fact, I don’t know why the term “lonesome” applies here better than the word “lonely”. I don’t think Nicholas is lonely.

Other than his relationship to his house, Nicholas has a relationship with his cat, Bianca. This relationship reminds me of Pi Patel’s relationship to the tiger, Richard Parker, in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. While Nicholas isn’t in danger from Bianca the way Pi is, the relationship is perhaps one-sided. Both relationships have similar endings.

Wonderful Town

I read this when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 37 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Richard Hague: Bait (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 36)

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Richard Hague’s short story “Bait” is a nice little character study riddled with similes. Similes such as:

The water lay silky black between shores, sheer and dark as a negligee.

Or:

…the bright reflection of his face in the mirrored bottles like a moon trapped in a glass.

Or my personal favorite:

She was tired of waiting for life to walk through the door of her shop, the little bell above it ringing like the winner’s gong on a game show.

Of course, maybe that last one has a metaphor in it, too.

“Bait” doesn’t have an intricate plot but it involves LaWanda Heever and her desire to get Sharkey, the barkeep at the Sheep’s Head, away from his wife and kids.  As a reader, I respected Sharkey’s continual rejection of LaWanda’s advances while, at the same time, feeling at least a little sympathy for LaWanda, herself, in spite of her less than noble pursuit. Not every storyteller could pull this off.

Degrees of Elevation

The title comes from the fact that LaWanda owns a bait shop though my guess it has a deeper meaning in the way LaWanda is using herself to lure Sharkey away. This story is included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay. I read it when I selected the Ace of Clubs for Week 36 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.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has so many great lines but as I re-read it, I couldn’t help but enjoy the visit Elizabeth Bennett makes to Pemberley. Her nervousness that the wealthy owner Mr. Darcy, to whom she had refused a marriage proposal, might be there makes her endearing; however, her “this could all be mine” moment makes her even more endearing.

Pride and Prejudice

I find it very humorous that after Elizabeth’s awe-inspiring view of the estate she does meet Mr. Darcy unexpectedly – but now he is so much more kind and gentlemanly. I do realize that Austen develops Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy beautifully and as readers, we know that they are on an introspective journey of personal growth as they learn about each other and get past first impressions. But the fact that the turning point comes for Elizabeth as she takes in all of the wealth around her at Pemberley puts so much depth (and I’ll say it again, humor) into the characters, it makes the story nothing short of delightful.

I’ve often half-joked with my family that, fictionally, I prefer romances in which the couple doesn’t end up together. If one or both die, even better. And I can make a case that some of the great love stories of all time follow this pattern. But I make a gigantic exception with Pride and Prejudice. In the case of this novel, wondering if they get together is half of the fun. The other half is when they actually do.

Jane Austen Read All

I’ve now read three Jane Austen novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. So far, Pride and Prejudice is by far my favorite. Following James over at James Reads Books with his Jane Austen Read-All-Along, in September, I can look forward to Mansfield Park, a novel for which I’ve heard mixed reviews. But I’m looking forward to it anyway.

Elizabeth Hardwick: Shot: A New York Story (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 35)

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It was near the end of a nice autumn day when his doorbell rang. Lovely September air, and gather it while ye may, for tomorrow in New York a smoky heat could move across the two rivers and hang heavy as leather on your eyebrows.

In Elizabeth Hardwick’s short story “Shot: A New York Story”, Carlos goes door to door trying to get money to bury Zona, his aunt who worked as a maid. He’s requesting financial help from Zona’s employers. The majority of the the story is from the perspective of three of the employers. While Carlos gets the money he needs, its not without some serious asking. The employers all loved Zona but they don’t part easily with their money.

Wonderful Town

The three employers all have their own stories and their own tone. While no Biblical references are included in the story, the fact that Hardwick chooses to relay Zona’s story through them reminds me of the story of The Good Samaritan. The three employers are not quite as calloused as the three people who encounter the man who was robbed in the parable but they still find it difficult to muster up the courage to help Zona.

In some ways, this story also reminds me of Susan Sontag’s story “The Way We Live Now” – with significantly fewer characters, though. The interrelationships between the charaters weave a story of not just New York but the world itself.

This story is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it when I selected the Five of Hearts for Week 35 of my Deal Me In short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saul Bellow: A Father-To-Be (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 34)

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Thoughts very often grow fertile in the subway, because of the motion, the great company, the subtlety of the rider’s state as he rattles under streets and rivers, under the foundations of great buildings, and Rogin’s mind had already been strangely stimulated.

A couple years ago I read my first short story by Saul Bellow “A Silver Dish”   and its remained a favorite ever since. So for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project, I selected the Four of Hearts which corresponds to another Saul Bellow story “A Father-to Be”. And it lives up to the reputation of that first story.

Wonderful Town

Rogin is coming home from work deep in thought about his fiance, Joan, her family and friends, his work and life in general. This story is true stream of consiousness. As he makes his way on to the subway, his thoughts turn toward the other passengers until he sets his sight on a man he decides could be his son in forty years. His thoughts may not be funny in and of themselves but the reader can’t help but laugh at the in-depth, detailed ideas that Rogin has about this man while the man himself has absolutely no clue what Rogin is thinking. All of the thinking on Rogin’s part contrasted with what is actual silence between the two passengers makes for an amusing scene.

This story gives a new meaning to the term “people watching” and it also makes one wonder what others might be thinking as they watch you. There have probably been stranger thoughts than Rogin’s.

This story is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It took me longer than I anticipated to finish F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, but I finally did and maybe now I can get the Jackson Browne song of the same name out of my head.

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night is Fitzgerald’s fourth and final completed novel and according to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, it has a passionate but small following of fans that consider it to be his best even though it typically gets overshadowed by The Great Gatsby. 

The novel’s central couple consist of psychiatrist Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole, who suffers from mental illness. Knowing the types of couples Fitzgerald tends to include in his novels, in addition to the fact that Nicole had once been Dick’s patient, it’s not surprising that this relationship is troubled.

It’s been said that this novel is considered “feminist” so, while reading, I was looking out for what might make one think that. There is gut-wrenching abuse suffered by Nicole as a child and then, her husband, fully aware of this abuse, occasionally wanders off to follow much younger girls. Does this make the novel feminist? I don’t know but it makes it depressing – until the end. And while the end may not be happy in the traditional sense, it was a breath of fresh air for Nicole. Maybe this is the feminist aspect of the novel? In fact, here is what I would consider one of the more hopeful endings from one of these post-World War I, American authors that suffers from disillusionment. I found myself very happy for Nicole.

And of course, we have Fitzgerald’s beautiful and ornate writing which doesn’t get much better than in this novel. I could choose from any number of paragraphs but here are two that give one a feel for the Divers:

She smiled at him, making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.

Many times he had tried unsuccessfully to let go his hold on her. They had many fine times together, fine talks between the loves of the white nights, but always when he turned away from her into himself he left her holding Nothing in her hands and staring at it, calling it many names, but knowing it was only the hope that he would come back soon.

Fitzgerald

Which is better? Tender is the Night or The Great Gatsby? From a literary perspective, I am sure that many could make a claim for either one. From my personal taste, I’ll go with Gatsby. While Tender may have the complex characters and an actual happy ending for one of them, I think the simplicity of Gatsby’s story makes it more universal.