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.

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.

Silas House: Total Immersion (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 33)

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Still she wants this. She wants a change, and in a town like Black Banks, this is the most you can change. There are only two kinds of people here: sinners and Christians. She wants to try a new crowd.

Referred to as “The Whore of Black Banks” by town’s people (and her daughter), Liz goes to church and gets saved in Silas House’s short story “Total Immersion”. Much of the story involves Liz telling her work friends who hang out at The Spot, the local honky-tonk, and Bruce, the married man with whom she is having an affair. The reactions range from disbelief to ridicule.

Degrees of Elevation

The story is best when Liz is sincerely contemplating her spiritual life – when she is actually honest with herself about her doubts about this whole church thing. House never makes fun of Liz’s ideas or decisions even while he presents them as something out of the ordinary, something unexpected.

The story ends with Liz’s baptism – hopeful but realistic. Well, I suppose this could be a spoiler alert, but it ends with part of a baptism. The pastor takes her under the water but the story ends before he brings her back up. Now, I believe there is every evidence that the pastor eventually (that may not be the right word) brings her back up. House just curiously chooses to end the story before he does:

She feels like she could lie there in that water from now on. She can hear the river moving beside her ears, like time, like death, like every bad thing she has done her whole life. She can taste the water (mossy, sandy- like the underside of a rock way up in the shadiest part of the mountains) that seeps in between the pastor’s big fingers.

She is under so long that she has time to open her eyes. And all she can see is light, slanting down onto the river’s surface.

Silas House is a well-known Kentucky author and often makes appearances at my local library. I’ve never had the chance to hear him speak and this is the first of his work that I’ve read. Based on this story, I would be interested in reading more of his work. 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 Ten of Clubs for Week 33 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.

 

Steven Millhauser: Eisenheim The Illusionist (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 32)

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Now, it is well known among magicians and mediums that a canvas of unbleached muslin may be painted with chemical solutions that appear invisible when dry; if sulphate of iron is used for blue, nitrate of bismuth for yellow, and copper sulphate for brown, the picture will appear if sprayed with a weak solution of prussiate of potash.

Only Steven Millhauser’s detailed wordsmithing could make the technical behind-the-scenes aspect of a magic trick seem, well, magical. Blending the natural and the supernatural is not uncommon in fiction but Millhauser does it exceptionally well in “Eisenheim the Illusionist” and he tops it all off by making it character driven:

Eisenheim’s nature was like that: he proceeded slowly and cautiously, step by step, and then as if he had earned the right to be daring, he would take a sudden leap.

As Eisenheim’s career and fame grow, the reader can’t help but ask the question from where are his increasingly dramatic illusions originating. Millhauser plants those seeds in the reader’s mind when he explains some of the tricks at the beginning of the illusionist’s career. There is always that thought that something natural is explaining what looks supernatural – even when the reader stops getting the explanations, even when the possibility of “higher powers” is introduced. At the same time, though, whether Eisenheim is simply an expert trickster or something more, Millhauser never brushes away the mystery:

All agreed that is was a sign of the times; and as precise memories faded, and the everyday world of coffee cups, doctors’ visits, and war rumors returned, a secret relief penetrated the souls of the faithful, who knew that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.

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“Eisenheim the Illusionist” is included in Steven Millhauser’s collection The Barnum Museum. I read it when I selected my third Wild Card, the Two of Hearts, for Week 32 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.