Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Ambitious Guest

 

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 32

One September night, a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high with the driftwood of mountain streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered ruins of great trees that had come crashing down the precipice. Up the chimney roared the fire, and brightened the room with its broad blaze. The faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed; the eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen; and the aged grandmother, who sat knitting in the warmest place, was the image of Happiness grown old.

What’s not to love about this opening paragraph and what’s not to love about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cozy little story “The Ambitious Guest” with a fatalistic mountain backdrop?

Nothing.

Every Hawthorne story I’ve read this year seems to be my favorite Hawthorne story – until I read the next one. It’s the same with this one. I would say that this one will be difficult to top but I’ve heard really good things about “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and that one is still somewhere “on deck”.

The above mentioned cozy family gathering is set in a tavern/inn and is interrupted by a guest who is in no way pompous but in every way likable even as he discusses all of his ambitions with the family. He elaborates on the American Dream and, for better or worse, one realizes how uniquely American this type of Dream is.

Then there’s the mountain that this tavern/inn is built against – a uniquely American “mountain”.

There are lots of good Hawthorne stories to read and they all are as timely today as they were approximately 200 years ago but I highly recommend this one. It’s included in a Hawthorne collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the Four of Clubs for Week 32 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

Philip F. Deaver: Geneseo

 

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 31

In the short time he’d known her, a few months, this was what he always noticed – her pallid, almost transparent color. The skin of a woman can make you wonder what you don’t know about her.

In Philip F. Deaver’s short story “Geneseo”, Jerome, the third person narrator takes Janet, his sort-of girlfriend, to a commune in which the story’s title is the name so she can get her 8 year-old daughter. Janet has recently left the commune where her daughter and husband still live.

Ultimately, neither Janet nor the commune are portrayed with a negative light. The fact that Jerome tells the story and he is mostly an innocent bystander contributes to the neutrality that seems central to the story. The reader learns that Janet has a drinking problem and that the commune is getting ready to close – lots of people have left. Nobody is forcing them to stay and nobody attempts to stop Janet from taking her daughter.

While this wasn’t my favorite story, it is the final story from the collection The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp from which I’ve read numerous great stories. My three favorites from this collection are:

3. Lions, Harts, Leaping Does by J. F. Powers

2. A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus

1. The Whore’s Child by Richard Russo

Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Posted in Short Stories

Robert Hazel: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 30

While Robert Hazel’s short story “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” was published in 1967 and is set during the Kennedy presidency close to sixty years ago, it seems as though it could very well have been set in 2020.

The story feels divided into two parts that don’t connect well but other than that, the story packs a powerful punch. Richard, the narrator, teaches poetry and literature in New York City. He occasionally mentions that he grew up in Kentucky but that’s the extent to which Kentucky is mentioned in this story. The dividing part of the story is the stabbing death of Richard’s friend, Hampden. The first part of the story is character driven in which the reader is introduced to Hampden’s bigoted worldview while also understanding that Richard isn’t of the same mindset as his friend in spite of the story’s title being an accurate description of both men.

After Hampden’s death, Richard walks around the New York City streets pondering the world he lives in. His thoughts and descriptions play out to the final paragraph:

I try to imagine a time of love and goodness. I try to imagine God, or at least imagine a time when God may have lived. There is always a feeling that a human being ought to be more than a brick with an obscene word scraped into its face in an old wall. That man ought not be in despair, alone, to die in the street, as Hampden did, or die standing up, listening to music, as I do now.

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 30 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

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Swimmers

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 29

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

I’ll go out on a limb and call Henry Marston a good guy and in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Swimmers”, I’ll go out on another limb and say that the good guy, or Henry Marston, wins.

All this “going out on a limb” stuff is because so many of Fitzgerald’s stories contain so many morally ambiguous characters that Henry seems to be a breath of fresh air. I was surprised how pleasant it was for a good guy to get what’s due him.

I’ve said many times before that not all stories have to have surprises and not all plots have to have twists. Even if the reader can see what’s coming a mile away, that mile can be glorious in the hands of a great story teller – like Fitzgerald. And when that last mile involves swimming, its even better.

As the final paragraph quoted above explains, there is a contrast in this story between Europe and America and its in this contrast that we can still have ambiguity. Fitzgerald gives both continents faults and flaws. Europe’s sophistication isn’t always that sophisticated and America’s money-grabbing, power-hungry landscape never gives it the moral high road. But I had to hand it to Henry as he maneuvered between both continents with such style – especially free-style.

This story is included in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 29 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

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 28

When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air pump, or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense, with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a fable that explains why people in their twilight years retire to Florida. Well, OK, not really in the modern sense of this concept but maybe in an 1837 sort of way.

Dr. Heidegger gets four of his friends (three male and one female) who are getting up there in age to drink small amounts of water from the Fountain of Youth (most likely located in Florida). These friends’ passions begin to reignite the more they drink and the three men begin fighting over the one woman.

The humorous aspect of this story is the contrast between Dr. Heidegger’s detached observation and the four emotional perspectives of his subjects. As the magic water wears off, the doctor decides he doesn’t want anything to do with this potion. His four subjects run off to Florida to find more.

This story is included in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 28 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

Kim Edwards: The Way It Felt To Be Falling

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 27

All summer I had felt myself slipping in the quick rush of the world, but here, in clear and steady descent, nothing seemed to move…the only sound was the whisper of my parachute.

If for no other reason, Kim Edwards’ short story “The Way It Felt To Be Falling” is worth reading because it describes, in first person, a first sky-diving experience. One reason I love to read fiction is that I can come close to experiencing things that I never actually will in real life – and I’m fairly certain I won’t be experiencing sky diving in real life and I can’t think of any other story I’ve read that includes this type of narration of this activity.

Of course there are other reasons to read this story, too. One is the juxtaposition of Kate’s sky-diving event against her world in which her father has slipped into severe mental illness, her mother is trying to hold herself (and Kate) together while decorating wedding cakes, and her relationship with Stephen is less than healthy. In some respects, Stephen cheats on her but it’s not in the manner one might think.

A paragraph about Kate’s father’s illness matches beautifully with her later description of sky-diving:

He did not speak, then or later, not even when the ambulance came and took him away. He did not sigh or protest. He had slid away from us with apparent ease. I had watched him go, and this was what I knew: madness was a graceless descent, the abyss beneath a careless step.

I’m so happy to have read this story – another great one in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 27 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

The Half Way Point

As I’ve been doing over the last few years, here are my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read so far during 2020 – based on my personal likes and dislikes:

10. Deferment – Dwight Allen

9. Winter Facts – Mary Ann Taylor-Hall

8. Bypass – Lisa Koger

7. Lady Eleanore’s Mantle – Nathaniel Hawthorne

6. At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners – Lauren Groff

5. The Ledge – Lawrence Sargent Hall

4. Birthmates – Gish Jen

3. The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin – Tennessee Williams

2. The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

1. The Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway

 

Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Lady Eleanore’s Mantle

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 26

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” has a simplicity of plot that makes it fairy tale-like not to mention the titular item that seems to have magical powers. But it also has a resonance to modern times as the hooded cape is blamed for a smallpox epidemic:

There is no other fear so horrible and unhumanizing as that which makes man dread to breathe heaven’s vital air lest it be poison, or to grasp the hand of a brother or  friend lest the gripe of the pestilence should clutch him. Such was the dismay that now followed in the track of the disease, or ran before it throughout the town.

As with many of Hawthorne’s more “fantastical” stories, they maintain a depth that keeps the reader thinking – even after the story is over. And the fact that it can still ring so true after almost two centuries makes it that much more powerful.

This story is included in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the King of Hearts 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

Edgar Allan Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 25

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…

Immediatley, Edgar Allan Poe pulls his reader in to sympathize with his protagonist narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The narrator wants to kill an old man and why wouldn’t he want to kill him? He has a weird eye.

Death and dismemberment ensue in the kind of gruesomeness for which Poe is known.

Even though I was rooting for him, the narrator doesn’t get away with everything due to a different body part of the old man . I wanted to tell the narrator just to be quiet that the noise is all in his head and that the police don’t hear it.

Too bad, though, it didn’t work.

After reading this, I wonder why I haven’t posted about more of Poe’s work on my blog. I have quite a few of his works on my shelf. This one is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Incidentally, in her introduction to this story, Oates, who has a knack for gruesomeness herself, calls Poe a genius. I couldn’t agree more.

I read this when I selected the Seven of Spades for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 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

Deborah Eisenberg: What It Was Like, Seeing Chris

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 24

I was thinking that now he had finally called me “honey.” It made me so happy, so happy, even though “honey” was what he called everyone, and I had been the only Laurel.

The title of Deborah Eisenberg’s 1985 short story “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris” has a little play on words in that Laurel, the teenage narrator, has an unnamed eye disease and in a sense dates an older man named Chris. Interestingly, the word “seeing” has more than one meaning.

Laurel is a sophomore in high school and one Thursday a month goes into the city to see her eye doctor. Afterwards, she heads to a restaurant across the street where she meets Chris. He’s apparently there all the time.

At approximately age sixteen, Laurel becomes infatuated with 27 year-old Chris. On the one hand, Laurel seems to have the typical maturity of a sixteen year-old girl. On the other hand, Chris has the maturity of maybe a sixteen year-old boy (but he’s 27).

The story in some ways reminds me of Jean Stafford’s writing in that the narrator is a little quirky and a little insecure but younger than Stafford’s narrators. And as enjoyable as “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris” might be and while nothing “illegal” every happens between the two, the age difference between the characters is uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s the point.

On a minor note at one point, Laurel spends the night at her friend Maureen’s and they stay up all night playing the board game Clue. I couldn’t get past the fact that they were playing Clue with only two people – not exactly challenging.

This story is included in the collection Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David RemnickI read it when I selected the Six of Hearts for Week 24 of my Deal Me In short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.