Exciting/Challenging plans for next month’s #24in48 Readathon!

I’ve been away from blogging for a while but hope to come roaring back in June and July. First, I must catch up on posting about my Deal Me In 2017 stories. I’m about 9-10 behind, but have read four of those. I’ll probably do some “collective” posts dealing with several stories at a time. This is the worst I’ve fallen behind since 2011 – the very first year I attempted the Deal Me In challenge. 😦

What I’m starting to geek out about though, is an idea I have for my reading during next month’s #24in48 readathon. The last few times I’ve participated I’ve tweaked the format, reading 24 short stories in 48 hours, using my Deal Me In approach (what is the “Deal Me In” challenge?) of assigning each story to a playing card in a “euchre deck” and drawing them one at a time to randomize the order. I’ve always found that reading short stories during a readathon helps me avoid getting “stuck” in a longer work.

For next month, though, I’m going to up the ante. I’m making this one a “52in24in48” readathon, reading a full deck’s worth of stories with the catch being that they’ll all be stories by Ray Bradbury, the beloved science fiction/fantasy/however you want to label him writer. Reading 52 stories may take me the whole 24 hours too, making this the first time I’ve done the #24in48 in its pure form (of the “24” meaning HOURS, not 24 short stories). I’ll come up with some prize donations for the home site of #24in48, and maybe offer a few on my own site for commenters, or those who read & post about something by Bradbury during the challenge, or even just for logging into and “liking” The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies’ Facebook page. Heck, you should do that last thing regardless of the #24in48 readathon anyway, right?

I’ll firm up the details of this project in the next few weeks.  One thing I have already decided, though, is that one of my “suits” from my 52 cards will be Bradbury Stories recommended by my fellow bloggers, so give me some recommendations starting… NOW! 🙂

(Below: One of Bradbury’s stories later evolved into the iconic novel, Farenheit 451)

the fireman

I should note also that today (June 5th) marks 5 years since Bradbury passed away. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long already.

(below: one of my favorite Bradbury pics – taken with him posing in the driver’s seat of the Time Machine prop from George Pal’s film adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.)

Ray-Bradbury-In-Time-Machine.jpg

What about YOU?  Are you doing the #24in48 Readathon next month (7/22-7/23)?  Do you plan to read anything by Bradbury? What are your reading plans for this fun challenge?

Top Ten Tuesday – Authors I “Can’t Believe I’ve Met”

 

IMG_5998Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme sponsored by the good folks over at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s assignment: “Top Ten Authors I’m Dying To Meet/Ten Authors I Can’t Believe I’ve Met (some other “meeting authors” type spin you want to do)” Okay, so I went with “can’t believe I’ve met” but it’s really my Top Ten Authors I’ve enjoyed meeting the most. Here goes, in ascending order:

10. Marlon James – Met him briefly just a couple months ago when he was a guest at (local) Butler University. My book club ‘targeted’ his award-winning book “A Brief History of Seven Killings” specifically with the idea of going to see him en masse when he visited here – a plan which we executed to near perfection. He seemed genuinely thrilled that “a whole book club” came to the event together and asked us what other books we’d been reading, etc. I was also intrigued to learn during his talk & reading that a series of stories he’s working on now has been touted as “A Black Game of Thrones” with potential television development, etc.  I will look forward to that.

a_brief_history_of_seven_killings_cover

9. Mike Mullin – A local YA author, most famous for his “Ashfall” series. I met him at Bookmama’s Bookstore (in my old Irvington Neighborhood on Indy’s East Side) Where he gave a great presentation and reading (see post about it here). I’ve also recommended the first book of that series for one of my current book clubs, which now plans to read it in October, and we will see if we can tempt him to join us for that meeting…

mullin

8. Francesca Zappia – Another local author, who wrote the very well-received YA novel “Made You Up,” which I read after it being recommended to me by my nephew who went to high school with her but “didn’t really know her.”  She attended a book club meeting (also at Bookmama’s) that I went to and I was very impressed with her, both as a speaker and a “thinker.”

made you up

7. Ben Winters – Writer of “The Last Policeman” series, who also lived briefly in the Indianapolis area before moving on to L.A.  I attended the book launch of the third novel of his series (which I blogged about here), and one of my current book clubs also read his newest novel “Underground Airlines.”

winters.jpg

6. Malinda Lo – She was a guest at The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library a couple years back, so I went to hear her speak and was impressed enough to buy her book “Ash” – a “lesbian version of Cinderella” which I enjoyed, though I never blogged about. (I could’ve sworn I did, but a search turned up nothing – maybe it was another one of those ‘started but never finished’ blog posts I’m famous for…)

ash_malindalo_500

5. Dan Wakefield – A local literary treasure who’s attended a few meetings of the Vonnegut Library book club and who I’ve also seen at other public events at Indy Reads Books bookstore. His novel “Under the Apple Tree” was one of the favorites that I read last year.

appletree

4. Tim O’Brien – Author of the very famous “The Things They Carried,” which I have read several times now, once for myself, and later re-reading for a couple book clubs over the years. He has been the guest of the Vonnegut Library here in town a couple times, one of which I described in this blog post from last year.

obrien (1)

3. Ian Woollen – He ranks high on this list both on the strength of his novel “Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb” and because he graciously drove up from Bloomington to join one of my book club’s meetings (for the same book) last August at The Rathskeller restaurant downtown.  He and his book were a big hit with the book club, and he also had some kind things to say about us being “the best” group of the many meetings he’s gone to. I had also met him at a Vonnegut Library book club meeting and yet another one at Bookmama’s Bookstore.

woollen.jpg

2. Jon Eller – Jon is the seemingly tireless director of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies here at IUPUI Indianapolis (please check out and like or follow their Facebook page!) and author of a three volume biography of that author. I initially meet him through the Vonnegut Library and later, when my short story reading group at work read Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” invited him to join us for that meeting. He and his wife did, and they’ve been regular members of our club ever since, adding much literary erudition to our group.

bradbury unbound

1. James Alexander Thom – I’ll put him at the top not because he is the best-selling author of all of these (though he is), but because of his graciousness at several book events I’ve met him at. He was also very nice to my Mom (Yes, the main reason he’s number 1 on this list!), who has read most of his books, especially “Follow the River” which is set partly in her home “New River Valley” of West Virginia. It was also once my pleasure to be the moderator at the Vonnegut Library Book Club’s discussion of Thom’s novel “Long Knife,” a fictionalized biography of William Clark, and before I knew it the library told me he was going to show up for our meeting(!)  No, that wasn’t intimidating at all. 🙂 Picture below from the author’s website.

thom

Most of these meetings have been facilitated through local bookstores or libraries (big thanks to Bookmama’s Bookstore, The Vonnegut Library, and Indy Reads Books, just to name a few) I have a lot of honorable mentions for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday too, many of them local: Robert Rebein, Roxane Gay,  Hanna Yanagihara, Bill Polian(!), Kevin Getchell, Greg Sumner, and Rick Gunderman.

Tradition and the Individual Talent – an essay by T.S. Eliot – selection #13 of Deal Me In 2017

 

The Card: ♠3♠ of Spades (image at left found here)

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “things that are.”

The Selection: “Tradition and the Individual Talent” from my hard copy of The Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates). Originally published in The Egoist in 1919.

The Author: T.S. Eliot – You may have heard of him. 🙂 He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, and one of his best known works is 1922’s “The Wasteland” – one of the “best known poems in the English language” according to Wikipedia.

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

Tradition and the Individual Talent

“Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are what we know.”

I have to say that this reading was one of the most challenging I’ve ever done for Deal Me In over the years. I guess it serves me right for including some essays this time, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, I pressed on and spent about forty-five minutes reading the mere nine pages this essay contained. Even the author himself seemed to recognize the difficulty of his subject – roughly the poet’s place in the literary tradition and his relationship to the past. At one point he even says, “To proceed to a more intelligible exposition…” which I found a remarkable thing for an essayist to “admit.” Near the end of the essay he begins a paragraph with “The point of view which I am struggling to attack…” if the writer himself is struggling, what may be expected of a poor reader like me?

One part of the essay I did find myself connecting with, however, was when Eliot employs an analogy from Chemistry, that of the concept of a catalyst, specifically, the reaction when platinum is introduced into a chamber that contains oxygen and sulphuric dioxide:

“When the two gasses are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.”

Eliot’s chemical analogies continued, including: “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”

That’s all I got. I’ll leave you with that. What has been your most challenging read of Deal and In – this year or any year?

Next up: A Deal Me In quarterly report and the Deal Me In Challenge’s first-ever giveaway! Stay tuned.

“La Pulchra Nota” by Molly McNett – selection #12 of Deal Me In 2017

The Card: ♠9♠ of Spades (image at left found here).
The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “things that are.”
The Selection: “La Pulchra Nota” from my hard copy of Pushcart Prize Winners anthology XXXIX “Best of the Small Presses.” Originally published in issue 78 of the “Image” journal. I also just realized I own this story in two places, as it is included in the 2014 edition of Best American Short Stories. Read it online here.

The Author: Molly McNett– She says she wanted to write a story about a music teacher and student, but didn’t want it to come out sounding like “Glee,” and her solution was to set the story in another time and place. Read more about her and this story at http://northernpublicradio.org/post/niu-author-best-american-writer (where the picture above may also be found)

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked! Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

La Pulchra Nota

La Pulchra Nota is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.”

Okay. Full disclosure. This story is my new leader for favorite Deal Me In story of 2017. I am rarely truly moved emotionally by a story and rarer still moved in multiple directions, e.g., from extreme empathy, to clear disgust, and back again, as I was in this story. I also did my traditional “drive by” online research of the story after reading, and was quite pleased to learn some of the details of its origins. (I also note with interest that, as Easter approaches, Deal Me In has dealt me up two stories in a row with a “religious” element…)

The story is the first person narration of John Fuller, who lives in the late Middle Ages – the late fourteenth century to be exact. It is a time when human life remains hard and mere survival – and accompanying happiness – likely involves healthy amounts of both faith and luck. Fuller, for example, is the youngest of twelve children of which only five survived childhood. The other seven being “called back to the fold” by the Lord.

Though Fuller lets us know that though, at the time of his narration, he “no longer has the use of his hands” and his pain “is not inconsiderable,” and that he was born with a deformity of one eye, he initially enjoyed at least some good fortune, including a fortunate marriage to a nine-years older woman, Katherine. He and his wife are “blessed” with twins, though apparently in the Middle Ages many believed that twins “must be sired by two fathers” (something I was unaware of or have forgotten) and she faced condemnation as a harlot by many.

Fuller reveals that “divine providence was pleased to take the life of our dear twins two days apart from each other” – victims of a fever that the narrator himself contracts but survives. Though he notes that “every devout man knows the great mercy He shows us in taking a child out of the world” his wife never recovers from the loss, leaving him in – to the modern eye – a hellish existence with a half-mad wife, who goes on a sort of medieval hunger strike to coerce him into going to see the “anchoress” as a solution to their grief: “John, I have given you sorrow. But the Lord has a remedy. We must go to the anchoress, declare celibacy, and I will again wear white.” John, hardly surprisingly, resists this request.

In the meantime, he continues to follow his vocation as a music teacher, which includes instruction of new young student, Olivia, who has talent far beyond what he normally sees among his pupils. Indeed, his regular lessons with this particular student serve as a kind of lifeline for some scant happiness in his life. He feels she may be capable of achieving the titular “La Pulchra Nota,” the existence of which he reveals to her then quickly regrets. “…your voice at times comes close to a moment of perfection – what Jerome has called la pulchra nota. Let us begin to listen for it. Mostly it appears with no strain whatsoever. But be attentive, for when such a note comes, if you know it, you may ever after use its sound to guide you.” He fears he may have given her false hopes, yet later, in a subsequent lesson, she does achieve la pulchra nota and knows it. This has serious consequences for both teacher and pupil…

I’ve “spoiled” the story enough already, but if you should like to read it, it’s available online at https://www.imagejournal.org/article/la-pulchra-nota/

(I don’t know if the “Jerome” referenced in the story is St. Jerome, but I though it was a safe enough assumption to include a picture of a famous painting 🙂 )

“Winter Elders” by Shawn Vestal – selection #11 of Deal Me In 2017

The Card: 10♦ of Diamonds (image at left found here.

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Diamonds is the domain of Lachesis, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “things that were.”

The Selection: “Winter Elders” from my hard copy of Pushcart Prize Winners anthology XXXIX “Best of the Small Presses.” Originally published in Ecotone magazine #15

The Author: Shawn Vestal – who grew up in Idaho, but is now a columnist and reporter for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. See his info on Goodreads.com here.

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

Winter Elders

“He noticed he didn’t feel surprised. He hadn’t expected this, but now that he was in the middle of it, it didn’t feel unexpected.”

Our protagonist is Mr. Bradshaw. A new father, a former member of the Mormon Church, and a man who had expected to have “found his place” in the world by now, but is concerned because he still hasn’t. The story opens with him being visited by two young missionaries of the church, still hopeful of drawing him back into the fold. They tell him they’re just checking in to “see if there’s anything we can do for you.” He gruffly suggests that they could rake his yard, and when they’re done with that, clean out his gutters. Their undaunted reply: “Don’t think we won’t.”

Bradshaw’ wife Cheryl, once his “partner in cynicism” has changed now, since the baby had been born, and was “always serious” now. She has no patience for the missionaries who, throughout the story, exhibit a dogged persistence in their attempts to reclaim “Brother Bradshaw.”

A health crisis for the couple’s baby precipitates an angry driveway confrontation between Bradshaw and the more vocal of the two elders, which sets up the passage quoted above.

I enjoyed the story and felt it deftly described the inner struggles of a young father who has yet to truly come of age. There was a lot of great writing too, e.g. describing the missionary “…there was something stubborn in him and, deeper, the sense that he was proud of his stubbornness.” And once, during a theological argument with the elder, Bradshaw becomes frustrated and angry and “…a gate unlocked inside him. The beasts trampled out.”

I hadn’t read this author before, but certainly would be happy to again.

Did YOU read any good short stories this week?

(below: great cover of  the issue (15) of Ecotone Magazine that includes this story. Buy one at https://ecotonemagazine.org/issue-15/ )

“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger – selection #10 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card: ♥8♥ Eight of Hearts

The Suit: For my version of Deal Me IN, this year, Hearts is the domain of Atropos, one of the “Fates” from Classical Greek Mythology who “sang of things that are yet to be” i.e., things in the future – the setting for this story. Atropos is also frequently represented as holding a pair of scissors with which she snips the thread of life which is spun by her two sisters, Clotho and Lachesis.

The Selection: “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” from my e-copy of the anthology The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2, from which I am taking several stories for this year’s Deal Me In.

The Author: George Alec Effinger (pictured at left, from Goodreads.com), author of the novel What Entropy Means to Me and a series known as the “Marid Audran” books. As the intro in my anthology says, “Much of his writing is marked by his strong sense of humor, which is in full flower in “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything.”

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything

“Mother ship?” I asked. “You haven’t seen it? It’s tethered on the Mall. They’re real sorry about what they did to the Washington Monument.”

After finishing this story, and looking back at my Deal Me In reading over the years, it struck me how few stories I’ve read that could truly be considered humorous. This story made up for a lot of lost time in that regard!  When I picked the story as part of my 2017 DMI reading plans, though, I knew nothing about it (there I go, picking based on a title again).

The story documents a visit to a future earth (Washington D.C. in particular) by extra terrestrials. Maybe I should say a return visit, as they had come once before, during the Eisenhower administration. The “Nuhp” – as the aliens were called – came this second time expecting the earthlings to be prepared for their visit, but they weren’t. The story the aliens were told in the ’50s was that making their presence known to an unprepared public would be disastrous.

This story is also unique, at least in my experience, in that it’s first person narrator is the President of the United States. (This was a president I wasn’t that impressed with, though.) He seems lost without his advisers, and doesn’t seem to thrilled with any responsibility that falls to him. At one point the Narrator President inquires of his aide if the aliens disclosed anything about their prior meeting with Eisenhower (which the Narrator-President was unaware of) and is told that the alien’s leader “says all they discussed with Mr. Eisenhower was his golf game. They helped correct his putting stroke.”

It soon becomes evident that these aliens, though more or less benevolent, are insufferable in their sharing of opinions about things, especially when it comes to the quality of things. Early on, they comment that though Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful, it is “certainly not his best work” (in their opinion it his his Piano Conecerto No. 5 in  E-flat major).  This is according to “very rigorous and definite critical principals” naturally. While the Narrator-President is wondering “what could this Nuhp know of what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony aroused in our human souls?” the Nuhp adds that even the Piano Concerto is not the best human musical composition (that honor apparently goes to the score from the motion picture Ben-Hur, by Miklos Rozsa(!) A good choice,I agree, but the best EVER?


The Nuhp soon immigrate to Earth in huge numbers, and quickly everyone grows fatigued by their opinions on everything.* The punchline (I guess you could call it that) of the story is that earth people begin to emigrate themselves, to other splendid worlds that the Nuhp have made them aware of, but NOT necessarily because of the attractiveness of those other worlds. Rather, they are mainly just tired of listening to the Nuhp and are fleeing their incessant and officious take on everything. What kind of places did they emigrate to? “These planets had one thing in common: they were all populated by charming, warm, intelligent, humanlike people who had left their own home worlds after being discovered by the Nuhp.”

All in all quite an entertaining story, and one that raised some interesting questions. One interesting passage, too long to quote here, was the story of a human named Barry,who was quite like the Nuhp in terms of being a self professed authority on everything and how everyone knew he was the man to go to if there was a question about something, but that no one did. Because they all hated him. 🙂
Other entries on the Nuhp’s Hall of Fame of Earth #1’s:

Best cuisine: Tex-Mex

Best U.S. president: James K. Polk

Best Movie: Grand Hotel (sorry, Ben-Hur, I guess  your great music wasn’t enough!)

Best Novelist: Alexander Dumas

Best Flowers: Hollyhocks

Best Car: 1956 Chevy Bel Air

Best Color: Powder Blue

 

The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdottir

little-book-of-hidden-people

Okay, so I’m planning a little trip to Iceland in about seven weeks.** Because of this,  I was looking for “something Icelandic” to read and started googling and found this book. I’ve always enjoyed reading folklore and “fairy tales” so I thought it would be a great light-reading snack in the midst of all my book club reading obligations, and… it was!

Author Sigmundsdottir tells us at the beginning of the book that she finds the media’s assumption that Icelanders have an “elf fixation” a bit annoying.  One anecdote she relates is how she was contacted by a representative of the media doing a story about how construction of a building had been halted because it was on a site where Icelanders believed elves lived. As it turns out construction was halted to confirm that no critical archaeological sites would be disturbed – a much less sensational story. She shares the stories in this book to help “set the story straight” regarding the role of elves in Iceland’s history, saying:

“Iceland’s elf folklore, at its core, reflects the plight of a nation living in abject poverty on the edge of the inhabitable world, and its peoples heroic efforts to survive – physically, emotionally and spiritually. That is what the stories of the elves, or hidden people, are really about.”

She goes on to say that the stories helped the early Icelanders “soldier on” during their period as an “oppressed colony.” She says, “The stories helped. A lot. They were the Icelander’s Prozac, providing refuge from the cruel circumstances people faced.” I suppose much folklore is born in such situations.

(below: [from Goodreads.com] – author Alda Sigmudsdottir)

I really liked how the book was organized, too, as each tale was followed by notes and the author’s explanations and observations. I was intrigued by many of the legends and beliefs, such as that “in those days (it was believed) that everyone was born with the ability to see the hidden people, but when the baptism water entered peoples eyes, they lost that ability.”

Also of interest to me was the concept of the “changeling” – where an elf might “switch out” one of its own race with a human child. This legend is not unique to Iceland either, but it could be taken to extremes there, as Sigmunddottir muses in her notes after one story titled “Father to Eighteen in the Elf World”:

“… an elf might come into your house and put her decrepit old husband who does nothing but howl all day long in your child’s place, after making him look exactly like your child so you can’t tell the difference. Remember that. Meanwhile, I have been pondering the significance of this “old people” business. I mean, why decrepit old people? Then one evening I was watching a telethon for UNICEF, where they were showing images of all these starving, malnourished children. They were so small, yet their faces looked so old. Like they had aged a lifetime from all that suffering. And it made me think. Were the children in Iceland back in the day also so malnourished that they looked old before they were even past infancy? The thought was rather disturbing, as was the idea that those children would be flogged mercilessly until “something happened.”*  Something. But what if nothing happened? What if they were starving, malnourished children, and were flogged mercilessly because someone thought they were changelings? It hardly bears thinking about.”

*Earlier in the book we learn this was the prescribed treatment for how one could determine if their child had indeed been “replaced” with a changeling.

(Below: gratuitous pop culture reference: In the Star Trek episode, “The Changeling” Captain Kirk  suspected that’s what the interstellar probe known as “Nomad” was.)


Many stories seemed to me to be transparently contrived to keep children – or even adults! – from straying too far from home in a dangerous landscape. Who knew what dangers – natural or supernatural – awaited them when they were away from shelter? All in all, a quite enjoyable read, and I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open when I travel there in April. 🙂

Other google searches by me found a popular trail which goes through a valley known as “The Land of the Hidden People.” See picture below. Looks beautiful!

(picture credit: http://www.iceland24blog.com/2014/11/viknasloir-trail-land-of-hidden-people.html)

viknasloir-trail

**Why am I going to Iceland? Part vacation and partly to play in the 32nd edition of the storied “Reykjavik Open” chess tournament. I’m an amateur player, but on my good days can play competitively with the masters. Not grandmasters, though, and so far there are 35 grandmasters registered for this tournament. I’m only the 110th(!) seed the last time I checked. My goal is score >50% in the tournament. Hey, it could happen. 🙂

“Safety” by Lydia Fitzpatrick – Selection #9 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card:
♠7♠ of Spades

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “the things that are.”

The Selection: “Safety” from my e-copy of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016. Originally published in One Story magazine.

The Author: Lydia Fitzpatrick – Currently a Los Angelean, and  a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and a Hopwood Award winner.

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

Safety

“The children know that, for the first time, they are hiding without wanting to be found.”

I read this story on my lunch hour at work, and it held my attention better than most that fall victim to that unfortunate time slot. I found myself holding my breath during parts of it, as it was quite suspenseful.  The setting?  A school shooting, seen through the eyes of an aging gym teacher and a young student who turns out to actually know the (at first) unknown active shooter, recognizing the Saint Michael’s (patron saint of soldiers) medallion dangling from his neck.

The gym teacher protagonist isn’t named, but was easy enough to like. We learn that he “is old, has been at this school for decades, and with each passing year, the children like him more and listen to him less..” and that dripping of the shower of the locker room has become “the metronome of his days.” I liked that one. He’s in the process of leading his class of eighteen small children through the “wind-down” phase of their exercise period, when an out of place sound fractures their normal routine.  The sound reminds one boy of “the sound a baseball bat makes when it hits a baseball perfectly” and one girl thinks it is the sound of lightning – “not lightning in real life, because it is sunny out and because she can’t remember ever hearing real lightning, but like lightning on TV, when the storm comes all at once.” Only the teacher and one other boy (who has “been to the range with his father and brother”) recognize the sound.

The teacher leads the children to a hiding place in his office (within the boys locker room) where they “huddle” and where he covers them with an old blue parachute that “the children play with on Fridays.” There they hide… and listen. They hear the sound of the gunman entering the gym, then the door to the locker room. They hear footsteps moving across the floor.  One boy thinks it’s the principal “because the principal is the only one who walks through the halls when they’re empty.” Then they hear metal clang on metal (the gunman’s hitting a locker with the butt of his gun?)

I have to admit, this story got my adrenaline flowing. The topic is certainly not a pleasant one, though, as the term “school shooting” has sadly entered the language in recent years. I included this story in my Deal Me In roster at random, maybe because I was curious about the title. I didn’t know in advance where it would lead me. The author states (in the story notes in the back of the book) that she started the story just after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, noting that she’d “just had a baby, and all of a sudden, my fears involved this new person and the safety of her current self, over which I had some control, and her future self, over which I have way less control.” These thoughts led to a good story – one good enough to make the O. Henry Prize Stories collection for 2016.

What about you? Have you ever encountered stories that – even though they were about a topic you would prefer to avoid – you found really “worked” for you? I’d have to say that was the case for me with this one.

 

 

 

Deal Me In 2017 Catch-up Post: selections #5 thru #8

IMG_3919-0Yes, I’ve been a bad boy and have not posting about the stories I’ve read recently, but at least I have still been reading my story weekly.  What have I missed sharing?  Well, I thought I’d go ahead and do a brief wrap-up of selections 5-8, which I have completed.

“Week” 5 – ♦A♦ – Letter from a Birmingham Jail (essay) – Martin Luther King

mlk-birminghamWell, Deal Me In’s “randomizer” just missed in having me draw this card the week of the Martin Luther King Holiday here in the United States, but since February is also “Black History Month” here, I figured DMI’s hand of fate was trying to land it somewhere in the middle.

Confession: I don’t remember reading this essay before, though I have of course been aware of it. I certainly haven’t read it as thoughtfully as I did this time  – I know that at least must be true. It’s also an essay that has perhaps added meaning in these challenging political times, and I was amazed at how chock-full it is of quotations that are part of the mainstream now. We are, for example, reminded that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up there privileges voluntarily,” and that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” How true this last…

For those who don’t know, the famous letter is King’s answer to one group of his critics (eight white clergymen) who were urging him to end his policy of nonviolent resistance and allow the issue of integration to be “handled in the courts.” King effectively gives many arguments and cases why he should not do so. His frustration with the lack of support from more moderate whites is also transparent throughout. At one point he says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride forward is not the White Citizens “Counciler” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”

A great and iconic essay that rightly belongs in my copy of the Joyce Carol Oates-edited collection The Greatest American Essays of the Century. I recommend revisiting it if you haven’t lately, or even reading it for the first time if you never have. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

“Week” 6 – ♦K♦ – The Devil Baby at Hull House (essay) – Jane Addams

hull-house

For week 6, DMI’s hand of fate kept me in the same suit and same source, leading me to this interesting essay by Jane Addams, a woman of letters who, though I was certainly aware of, I had never read before. This essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1916, and later was included in Addams’s “The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House in 1930.

To understand the setting of the story, one must know first that Hull House (above) was a “settlement house” in Chicago and, according to Wikipedia, Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, “a community of university women” whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood.”

It seems that Hull House became the center of what we would now call an “urban myth” – one in which a “Devil Baby” had been born there and was being kept secret from the public. The rumor became so powerful that Hull House became inundated with “pilgrims” who visited there and refused to believe the repeated denials of the “Devil Baby’s” existence. Addams expertly uses this phenomenon to examine just what are the kind of people who are likely to believe such a story, even when contradicted by those who would certainly know better. In the essay, the standard “profile” of these visitors becomes one of an “older woman” and Addams also notes that “…the story constantly demonstrated the power of an old wives’ tale among thousands of people in modern society who are living in a corner of their own, their vision fixed, their intelligence held by some iron chain of silent habit.”  The essay drifts a bit into an examination of old age, but returns to conclude that the legend was so widely believed “because the Devil Baby embodied an undeserved wrong to a poor mother…”

A very interesting read that goes much deeper that I first expected.

“Week” 7 – ♦3♦ – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

caged-birdThe randomized order of DMI continues to honor Black History Month, and I was pleased to have an excuse to finally read this, which I must sadly report, I was apparently unequal to. Upon finishing, I still didn’t know why the Caged Bird Sings until I googled it. It was taken from the third stanza of a poem by African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

This essay was actually adapted from the opening sections of the 1969 “autobiographical fiction” book of the same title, and tells of the author’s childhood growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. There are undoubtedly some great sections, including a “showdown” between Angelou’s mother and a local group of “white trash” kids who harass her family at the store they own. I found the day to day life descriptions well done too, but probably just fell victim to “unrealistic expectations” for this work, since it is such a famous title. I probably should read through it a second time or, better yet, read the entire book, not just an excerpt.

“Week” 8 – ♠K♠ – Double On-Call – John Green

john_green_by_gage_skidmoreGreen is a local “literary hero” here in Indianapolis. (His office is just a few miles from mine, and a coworker has even bumped into him grabbing lunch at the nearby Whole Foods store!). This was a good story and quite unlike his other work that I’ve read. The quotation it leads off with might give you some indication:

“God is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way in which he is with us to help us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What does THAT mean? I think that I still don’t know even after reading the story, which is about a very young man who works as a chaplain in a hospital, where we meet him during a “double on-call” shift – or two consecutive nights of being on call at the hospital, chained to his pager. On this particular night, the crisis du jour is a young couple who brings in their baby who “fell.” Fell as in that’s the transparent “story” they’ve come up with to explain away its head trauma, caused by the father. It is the young chaplain’s duty to talk with the father and get him to realize the magnitude of what he’s done.

Not a pleasant story, but one well told. I read in some online reviews (but was unable to confirm) that this was an earlier story of Green’s, tidied up to be published in a volume titled “Double on Call and Other Stories.”

That get’s me current, though I am currently reading “Safety” by Larry Fitzpatrick for selection #9.  What have YOU been reading lately?

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

“Shiloh” and the Orphan Stories from Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange”

ronrashbook

One of my unofficial blogging resolutions for this year is to have more posts that aren’t specifically about the Deal Me In Challenge. So, okay, here’s one:

One of my book clubs recently read a short story collection, Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” which contains stories set in Appalachia, but across a wide time period – all the way from from the Civil War era to the present. This book and meeting recalled to my mind that once, several years ago, the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss his superb collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” We only had an hour to meet – not enough to cover all 24(?) stories in the book – and afterward I wrote a blog post “Orphan Stories from the Monkey House,” briefly describing the stories we didn’t get to in order to give them a little love too. Strangely, both at that meeting and at my recent one for Ron Rash’s book, I found my favorite story was being neglected throughout the meeting. This time, however, I took action and “forced” my book club to talk about Rash’s story, “Shiloh,” maybe my favorite of the whole 34 included in that volume. And what is it about Shiloh, anyway? It keeps popping up in my reading and related adventures…

“After Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

I first heard of the famous Civil War battle, Shiloh, when I was quite young. Many young people first learn of things via movies or tv, and in this case my experience was no different. My Mom and Dad were huge fans of the blockbuster (of its time, anyway) film “How the West Was Won.” It featured an all-star cast, and several more huge stars (like John Wayne!) in extended cameos. Wayne played alongside Harry Morgan as generals Sherman and Grant engaged in a dialogue after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh – a day where the Union suffered considerable losses. The film was narrated at points by Spencer Tracy, whose magnificent voice informed us that, “after Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

Yes, that’s actor George Peppard stumbling through the foreground in that clip. Later, maybe when I was ten or eleven, my family went on a summer camping trip (we did a lot of these since my dad was a teacher, and he often said the three best things about being a teacher were June, July, and August) where we visited many of the more famous Civil War battlefields, and though Shiloh wasn’t among them, my “general knowledge” of the Civil War and its battles increased.

Still later, when a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, I learned a little about General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur and a resident of that town in the later years of his life. It was also in college where I acquired the nickname “General” or “General Jay” – though that had nothing to do with Lew Wallace. (I apparently liked to give orders to my fellow freshman when we were fraternity pledges.) I learned that Wallace was an important figure in the Battle of Shiloh, frequently blamed for heavy losses on the first day of fighting,  because he allegedly “took the wrong road” on the way to the battle. It was a “stain” that hounded him the rest of his career.

getchelllewwallace

(above: (left) author Kevin Getchell and some of the artifacts he shared with us at his lecture; (right) Major General Lew Wallace)

STILL later, just a few years ago, I went to a program at the Indiana Historical Society given by author Kevin Getchell,  who had written a book (“Scapegoat of Shiloh“) which in his eyes “exonerated” Wallace from the blame that history had – right or wrong – assigned to him. I learned a lot more than I had ever known about the battle, and got a copy of his book which I later read but never blogged about (my brief review on Goodreads.com is linked above, though). He autographed my copy for me referencing”the peace of the true Shiloh.” 


Back in November, during a visit to the Lew Wallace Museum and Study in Crawfordsville, I saw among the General’s collection of walking sticks one that my guide told me had been collected by him many years after the war, when he returned to the exact site where his tent had been and selected its raw material from the wood available there. I thought that was a great story – and artifact! (It’s not a great picture by me above, but I think it was the one with the white handle)

Then STILL later, just a few weeks ago in fact, I went to another program, this one sponsored by “the Indianapolis Civil War Roundtable” (http://www.indianapoliscwrt.org) – a local  organization of amateur historians that I didn’t even know existed until just not long ago. The program was about Lew Wallace’s role in the Civil War. This rekindled my interest in Shiloh and THEN – Lo and behold – the penultimate story on Ron Rash’s book was one titled “Shiloh.”

“Shiloh” by Ron Rash

Rash’s story is that of a soldier who is seriously wounded in the the famous battle and begins walking(!) home, which in his case is quite a long journey to undertake on foot. His wound is severe enough that I immediately began to question whether or not he had actually survived his injury, suspiciously wondering if Rash was trying to pull off a variation of Ambrose Bierce’s famous story,”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I was prepared to be outraged at such a transparent “rip off” of a favorite story. As the character in Rash’s story got closer and closer to home, other hints emerged concerning the severity of his injury and of there being a “fever” at large, which he may have contracted. “Here we go,” I thought.

When he reaches home, and sees his wife, and she doesn’t answer his shouts of greeting as he approaches the cabin, I thought, “this is it.” But that wasn’t it. Rash had a different twist in mind for us, one that I hadn’t seen coming, and one I applauded, especially considering the short story pedigree of Ambrose Bierce’s story that it called to mind.

There were a few other stories that my Book Club didn’t get to (unlike the Vonnegut Library’s book club, which meets in the middle of a weekday(!), we have an open-ended meeting time, though we rarely go on for more than 90 minutes or so). Still not enough time to cover 34 stories, though. Prior to the meeting, I had made a list of the story titles with a one-sentence, ridiculously oversimplified summary of what the story was about and, as I sensed the meeting starting to wind down, took a look to see what stories we didn’t get to. It made me think once again, as I did with Welcome to the Monkey House, what causes some stories in a collection get “orphaned” at a book club meeting?

In this case, reviewing my list today almost four weeks after our meeting, the stories we didn’t cover weren’t necessarily weaker stories, though a couple were in my opinion, but rather were crowded out by the club wanting to talk more about other stories – other stories that perhaps elicited a more emotional response. There were three that were left out (Okay, I admit there is a possibility these were discussed and I’ve forgotten – or were sneakily brought up during my trip to the restroom. 🙂 ), however, that I’d like to mention here for those that may be interested in reading this book:

“Into the Gorge” was a great story about an older man whose family land had been sold off to the government which had, in turn, made it part of a State Park. The protagonist remembers that his father had a secluded crop of ginseng plants “in the gorge” and decides to do a little ad hoc harvesting, which local law enforcement doesn’t approve of. My blogging colleague Dale at the Mirror With Clouds blog posted about this story  recently.

“Dead Confederates” was a grim tragi-comic story of a down on his luck – but likely good-hearted – man who falls into bad company and agrees to help plunder some old graves for civil war artifacts that can then be sold to collectors.

“A Servant of History” was a truly creepy tale that felt as if it might have been inspired by Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” or “Twilight Zone” series. A “college boy” with “delusions of grandeur” fancying himself as an historian, visits an ultra remote Appalachian family (descended from a Scottish Clan) in search of nearly forgotten ballads that though “lost to time in Britain might yet survive in America’s Appalachian Mountains.”

(below: Gratuitous picture of the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, IN)

So, that’s my story. 🙂 What about you? Have you been in a book club that read a collection of short stories? If so, how did you handle the discussion? Did you just talk about ones that came up naturally, or did you plan the discussion so each got a fair hearing? I’d love to hear about it…

(below: Author Ron Rash)

 

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