Alice McDermott’s short story “These Short, Dark Days”

For week 35 of Deal Me In 2015, I drew the two of clubs. This year, my clubs suit is dedicated to stories from The New Yorker magazine, and “deuces are wild” so I had the entire history of that publication to choose from (excluding the twelve stories I’m already reading this year). What did I do? I read the fiction piece in the most recently published issue, Alice McDermott’s “These Cold Dark Days,” my first encounter with this author. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.


I had to use the playing card image (found at http://omegalpha.deviantart.com/art/The-Two-of-Clubs-313682433 ) below since it features a book. :-)

****SPOILERS FOLLOW**** (you may, however, read the story for free online at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/24/these-short-dark-days as The New Yorker allows a limited number of free reads per month – use them wisely :-) )

(Photo of Alice McDermott by Jamie Schoeneger from The New Yorker)

This is the story of a suicide and its aftermath. It didn’t take me long to read between the lines in the opening paragraphs of the story and realize what “Jim” was planning. The details of his intentional demise are not as important as the story of the wake that trails behind his act, though. It is along this wake that we meet “Sister St. Savior,” a “Little Sister of the Sick Poor,’ who helps Jim’s young widow deal with the tragedy and is, for my money, the real main character of the story.

Of Jim, McDermott writes:

His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the B.R.T. His trouble was that he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 A.M., and, while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turning from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he would continue as he willed. ’I’m not going,’ he’d murmur. ’I won’t be constrained.’”

Then, as he makes his preparations:

He remembered his mother, the picture book spread out on her wide lap. Within this very hour he would put his head on her shoulder once again. Or would he? Would this effort to prove himself his own man—to prove that the hours of his life belonged to himself alone—bar him from Heaven? Did he believe in Heaven? There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor.”

Upon hearing whispers that the death was no accident, Sister St. Savior’s “trainee,” Sister Jeanne, who joins her in her visit to do what she can for the survivors, asks her mentor, “Is it true?” she asked. Sister St. Savior laughed. “True enough.” Her smile was as smooth as paint. “The Devil loves these short, dark days.” And thus we get the title for the story. We learn a lot about Sister St. savior through her efforts to keep the fact that the death is a suicide quiet so that Jim may still be buried in the churchyard (burials of suicides were not permitted on the church’s “hallowed” ground). Her efforts are unsuccessful, however, when the news leaks out officially and the New York Times plans to report it factually. When notified of this fact, Sister St. Savior delivers my favorite line from the story: “The New York Times,” she said, “has a big mouth.”

Sister St. Savior muses during the story:

“All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.”

A powerful story and a good introduction to this author for me. I also read an interview with her regarding this story (link below) and found the following quotation particularly fitting:

McDermott: “I think a misconception among many non-religious people is that anyone with a strong faith is, in all ways and at all times, blindly consistent, unwavering, unquestioning. That has never been my experience of the (now four generations of) practicing Catholics I have observed.”

Author interview : http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-alice-mcdermott-2015-08-24

Have you read anything by this author? Are you a reader of The New Yorker magazine? I have a digital subscription but am embarrassed today I often let whole issues go unread. I should at least read the fiction, right? I’m the host of the famous Deal Me a In Challenge after all! :-)

Other Stuff Bibliophilopolis has Been Up To…

Seems I’ve been so busy lately all I have time to blog about it is my weekly Deal Me In challenge. Rest assured, I’m still reading almost as much as ever and trying to support the local “literary community” by attending events, etc.  Below are a few brief notes on some of my other activities.

IMG_6112

I’ve formed a reading group at my office! You’ll not be surprised that the focus of the group is on shorter works that “can be read in an hour or less” (but not limited to short stories). We have several essays and other non-fiction on our virtual bookshelf. We’ve had three (monthly) meetings so far and have read Anton Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” Philip K. Dick’s “Beyond the Door,” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy.” Two of those I’ve already read for prior iterations of Deal Me In, but it was still fun to revisit them and talk about them with another group of dedicated readers. We have ten people signed up but attendance had been. 6 (once) and 7 (twice). I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussions and how much fun our meetings have been (we do meet in a bar, so that helps!) I created a “group” for us on goodreads.com too if you’d like to take a look or even follow our progress.

A friend who is in this new reading group also gave me a birthday present of Robert E. Howard’s “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.” Yes, that Conan. Anyway, I’ve read the intro and a couple stories and have kind of pledged to start a “Cimmeria Sunday!” project and read my way through them. The first story I’ve read under this banner was “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” which, as it turned out, I really liked. This type of adventure fantasy is kind of genre broadening for me to, which I consider a good thing. I’ll keep everyone posted and maybe share a story or two if I get ambitious.

A couple weekends ago, I went to a couple local literary events. One was a launch party for a collection of poems by J.T. Whitehead, a local deputy attorney general/poet who is also the husband of the director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (which hosted the event) here in town. I enjoyed listening to his readings of selected poems from the book, which I also purchased a copy of (pictured above). The title of the collection is “Table of the Elements,” and the first section has poems titled with names of the elements, while the other section’s titles are compounds. What a great idea! In the Q & A That followed, I asked if the author was familiar with the Sam Keane Non fiction work “The Disappearing Spoon” (which I’ve mentioned on Bibliophilopois before)  he said “No, but funny you should ask…” as apparently other poets or writers have had similar ideas and one was suspicious of him wondering how he was stealing her ideas!

IMG_6174(above: poet J.T. Whitehead reading from “Table of the Elements” at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. I always think it must be a little unnerving for guests of the library to speak with a framed print of Vonnegut’s doodle of a sphincter right behind them! [photo by me])

Lastly, I went to another local author event, hosted by Bookmama’s Bookstore, whose owner(?)/manager(?), Kathleen, is a stalwart supporter of local and independent authors (in addition to Big Name Celebrity Authors – e.g., I met former Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian at her little store in Indianapolis’s Irvington neighborhood, and a million-selling historical fiction author (and Hoosier) James Alexander Thom). I’ve written before about her store and “underground” studio. This event, however, was to support the publication of “Decades of Dirt” by the Speed City chapter of Sisters in Crime, a mystery writers organization whose anthology “Hoosier Hoops and Hijinks” is part of my library AND I’ve featured a couple stories from it in this year’s Deal Me In, “More Than the Game” and “Fallen Idols“). I picked up a copy of their new effort and look forward to exploring it, especially with my 2016 focus on Indiana writers for the state’s Bicentennial.

IMG_6173(above: author Andrea Smith at Bookmama’s Bookstore, reading from her story in Decades of Dirt. [photo by me])

Bibliophilopolis has also made modest donations to help sponsor a couple local literary projects, helping to offset the expenses of one of the guests for the Banned Books week events at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and to help fund (still 6 days left to donate if you’re interested!) an anthology of Indianapolis stories, “Mythic Indy.” More on both of these as we get closer to kickoff time. Not to mention that you may still buy the anthology we helped sponsor last year, “Indy Writes Books,” which includes a dozen stories that have been featured in this year’s Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge. More info on this one may be found at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

What interesting bookish activities have YOU been up to that you maybe haven’t had time to blog about?

Deal Me In 2015 – Week 34 Wrap Up


Below are links to new posts I found since the last update. If you’d like to see what the DMI crew has read recently, try the links below.

Dale at Mirror With Clouds posted about Ann Beattie’s Story “Janus” https://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/ann-beattie-janus/

Katherine at The Writerly Reader read the story “Flash” by Loren D. Estleman https://katenread.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/deal-me-in-week-34-flash/

“o” at Behold the Stars read the John Keats poem “Lamiahttp://beholdthestars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/lamia-by-john-keats.html

Jay at Bibliophilopolis (hey, that’s me!) Wrote about Daniel Alarcon‘s “City of Clownshttps://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/city-of-clowns-by-daniel-alarcon/

What short stories did you read this week?

“City of Clowns” by Daniel Alarcon

For week 34 of Deal Me in 2015, I drew the Queen of Spades, which I had assigned to the story “City of Clowns” from Daniel Alarcon’s acclaimed collection “War by Candlelight”. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that WHEN you read a particular story or book can have a huge impact on how much you like it. Some works of fiction are best if struck when the iron is hot. Either the iron was hot when I read Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” this week, or Alarcon may just be a really great writer. Probably both are true. I found myself transported from my workaday, rat-race mood to the country of Peru, which I’ve never visited but have read about often. I remember being fascinated by the Inca civilization when I was a young history student, and I still want to see Machu Picchu. Maybe someday…

Alarcon names a ton of places and things that I’m hearing of for the first time, and yet somehow a sense of home is communicated to me by reading. Amazing. The story takes place against the backdrop of a crumbling Peruvian government that Oscar, our narrator, is privileged to know the circumstances of because he works in the press. In these already troubled times he also learns of the death of his estranged father, who he has more or less disowned for many reasons, one of which was when he learned the father was leading a double life, with another woman with whom he even fathered other children. (It seems hookers are morally okay with Oscar – who made use of them – but not an “entire affair” like his father running off with this Carmela.)

Queen of spades image from: https://store.stoneycreek.com/mystic-stitch-c312.aspx

The death of his father doesn’t immediately effect him that much – after all he hadn’t been a part of the narrator’s life for many years. But so what? He was once a major part of it and naturally also had a major role in shaping the kind of man he was to become. Sent to interview street performing clowns by his paper, the absurdity of the “story” Oscar is working on strangely tugs at him and he experiences a catharthis regarding his father’s passing.

“…the idea of it made me sad: clowns with their absurd and artless smiles, their shabby, outlandish clothes. I’d walked only a few blocks when I felt inexplicably assaulted by loss. In the insistent noise of the streets, in the cackling voice of a DJ on the radio, in the glare of the summer sun, it was as if Lima were mocking me, ignoring me, thrusting her indifference at me. A heavyset woman sold red and blond wigs from a wooden cart. A tired clown rested on the curb, cigarette between his lips, and asked me for a light. I didn’t have the heart to interview him. The sun seemed to pass straight through me.”

That last sentence really nailed it for me. Later, he recalls when his family moved to Lima how he witnessed a gang of kids attack (with water balloons!) a lone clown sitting on a sidewalk. As part of his research for his story on the clowns of Lima, he even “goes undercover” and works with a couple real clowns to experience their day. He finds that he is able to observe the city in new ways hiding behind this disguise.

“Exactly zero (people) recognized me. I was forgetting myself too, patrolling the city, spying on my own life.”

A really good story and one of my favorites of Deal Me In 2015.

One of my favorite aspects of Deal Me In is discovering new favorite authors, and I know already that Alarcon (pictured below) will be one of them. I have one other story of his (“A Science for being Alone”) in my 2015 Deal Me In roster and am now eagerly looking forward to when that card turns up. What about you? Are you familiar with this author? Am I late to the game – as is often the case with me?

Deal Me In 2015 – Week 32 & 33 Wrap Up


Doubling up on the wrap up this time since I was on vacation last week. Below find links to new Deal Me In posts since the last update.

Dale at Mirror With Clouds wrote about Edith Wharton’s “The Journey” https://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/edith-wharton-the-journey/

Katherine at The Writerly Reader posted about “In the Cart” by Anton Chekhov https://katenread.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/deal-me-in-week-32-in-the-cart/

Katherine also posted her latest “full moon add-on” entry, which I failed to catch in week 31’s wrap up. She posted about “Death and the Woman” by Gertrude Atherton https://katenread.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/deal-me-in-lunar-extra-death-and-the-woman/

“o” at Behold the Stars shares her thoughts on Samuel Johnson’s “London” http://beholdthestars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/london-1738-by-samuel-johnson.html

I posted about two stories, Cathy Day’s “Your Book: A Novel in Stories” and Barbara Swander Miller’s “More Than the Game” https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/deal-me-in-doubleheader-weeks-31-32-your-book-a-novel-in-stories-by-cathy-day-and-more-than-the-game-by-barbara-swander-miller/

Dale also posted about James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mittyhttps://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/james-thurber-the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty/

“o” at Behold the Stars also covered Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: http://beholdthestars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-legend-of-sleepy-hollow-by.html
You might also be interested in reading about Dale’s “Bradbury of the Month” where he examines that author’s story “The Exiles” (also a favorite of mine!) https://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/08/16/bradbury-of-the-month-august-the-exiles/

That’s it for now. We’ll see you next week with another update.

Deal Me In Doubleheader: Weeks 32 & 33 – “Your Book: A Novel in Stories” by Cathy Day and “More Than the Game ” by Barbara Swander Miller

I’ve fallen behind pretty egregiously in Deal Me In, so I’m going to combine my week 32 & 33 selections in one post. Both selections were by Indiana authors so I’m also counting this as a “Reading Local” post. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.

Unlike week 31’s selection, my week 32 story was a perfect fit for the Indy Writes Books anthology. The three of diamonds led me to the fascinating and delightful Cathy Day story, “Your Book: A Novel in Stories,” which traces a kind of life cycle of an author’s book and even the author herself.


Among other things, it follows the various ways that “the word gets out” about books (goodreads, word of mouth, seeing a friend or stranger reading a book you’ve heard of, etc.). In this regard, I know much of what’s in the story is true because I’ve witnessed it myself over the years. We readers often forget that we’re consuming a finished product that has undergone quite a history just to get to the point where it’s fallen into our hands. I think the following is a good representative passage from the story when dealing with this process:

“She loves the stories inside the books, yes, of course, but she also loves the stories outside the books, which is the story of how a book travels from the author’s imagination into the reader’s imagination. To do so, it must travel a vast maze called commerce, and your editor has devoted her adult life to understanding that maze, which is why she lives inside it and inside this office, even when she isn’t physically there.” 

 
Three of diamonds image from http://eprints.utas.edu.au/6843/

For my week 33 story, via the ten of hearts, I returned to the “Hoosier Hoops and Hijinks” anthology, tackling Barbara Swander Miller’s “More than the Game,” a story that is a mystery not in the whodunit sense, but rather a young man’s exploring why there was such a rift between his father and recently deceased grandfather, who was a standout basketball star for the local “Red Rollers” basketball team. Young Tim is just beginning to become interested in basketball and has begun to regularly participate in a local pickup game with other youths – a scene repeated countless times all over my state and one in which I participated in myself when I was young. Tim also experiences – or hallucinates? – a couple spectral encounters with his grandfather and old teammates that lead him to discover his grandfather has bequeathed “a box” to Tim, that his dad doesn’t want him to have…


I was a little surprised at how different this story was from the others I’ve read in this anthology (two of which are part of my 2015 deal Me In roster, one of which (“Fallen Idols”) I’ve already posted about.

What short stories have you read recently? Have you ever tried a “reading local” focus to your reading plans?

“This Bitter Pill” by Frank Bill

For week 31 of the 2015 Deal Me In challenge, I drew the eight of diamonds, which I had assigned to the Frank Bill short story, “This Bitter Pill” from the Indy Writes Books anthology. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.


The randomized order of my Deal Me In selections often produces eerie coincidences. For instance, just this week, in nearby Anderson, Indiana, police broke up a heroin ring of more than twenty(!) people. (News article may be found here if you’d like to be depressed) Heroin addiction and its consequences is the subject of Frank Bill’s short story, “This Bitter Pill,” originally published in Pank Magazine but also reprinted in the “Indy Writes Books” anthology, which I own a copy of.

“Tar Baby” is an eighteen year old mother of a newborn. She has a deadbeat boyfriend, “Patch Work,” a stuttering, “stillbrain” whose main attraction appears to be that he “scores good drugs.” She works at a low-paying convenience store job, and is, along with her boyfriend, a heroin addict. Tar Baby and Patch Wwork have gotten into debt to a despicable dealer, “Deuce,” using some of the money that friendly relatives have given them to help “the young couple out with the baby” as a down payment on a fix and promising the rest, thinking they’ll pay Deuce back  when Tar Baby gets her meager paycheck. Sadly, they discover that much of that money is needed for diapers and other baby-related expenses.

What to do? It seems one option is that Deuce is notorious for taking payment in flesh – usually in sadistic ways – from his delinquent female customers. This option hangs in the background throughout this short story as the young couple try to cope.

This was not a pleasant story, and I’m still a little perplexed at how it found its way into this anthology, the submissions for which were supposed to have “something to do with reading, writing, literacy, books, or bookstores.” I guess a stretch could be made that “illiteracy” might be assumed to be among the young couple’s shortcomings, though that isn’t explicitly stated. Illiteracy is rampant, in general, in the margins of society that these characters inhabit. In fact “margins” of society is a good choice of words here, as one of the problems that keeps people like this down is the fact that there is little or no margin for error in their lives. Just one setback or piece of bad luck (or more often a bad decision) can quickly derail any progress (or the hope of progress) being made to extricate themselves from the margin…

I continued to enjoy the author’s gritty and visceral writing style in this story (as I have in his previous works that I’ve read, “Coon Hunter’s Noir” and “Amphetamine Twitch“) I have one more story of his to go in this year’s Deal Me In, titled “What Once Was” and am looking forward to reading it.

Indy Writes Books is an anthology for sale by Indy Reads Books, with all proceeds going to support local adult literacy programs, an undeniably worthy cause which Bibliophilopolis is happy to support. If the Indy Writes Books anthology sounds like something you’d be interested in, please consider purchasing a copy. More info may be found at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

Up next for week 32 of Deal Me In 2015 (Also from Indy Writes Books): “Your Book: A Novel in Stories” by Cathy Day.

Below (from goodreads.com): author Frank Bill

frank bill

Deal Me In 2015 – Week 31 Wrap Up


Sorry for the delay in this wrap-up post. I had kind of a “lost weekend” (not the Ray Milland movie kind, thankfully) and am just now getting back into the swing of things. Below are links to new posts since the last wrap-up:

“o” at Behold the stars read “Know Thyself” by Samuel Johnson http://beholdthestars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/know-thyself-by-samuel-johnson.html

Dale at Mirror With Clouds posted about “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates https://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/grace-stone-coates-wild-plums/

Katherine at The Writerly Reader shares her thoughts on “Tedford and the Megaladon” by Jim Shepard https://katenread.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/deal-me-in-week-31-tedford-and-the-megalodon/

I read Indiana author Frank Bill’s “This Bitter Pill” and hope to have my post up soon. :-)

I think that’s it for this week – see you next time for week 32!

Deal Me In 2015 – Week 30 Wrap Up

 
Deal Me In art from https://dilettanteartiste.wordpress.com

Greetings, fellow short story readers! Below are links to new Deal Me In posts since the last update. Why not check them out? :-)

“o” at Behold the Stars has written about the Aristophanes play, “The Poet and the Womanhttp://beholdthestars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/the-poet-and-women-by-aristophanes.html

Dale at Mirror With Clouds read his first short story by David Foster Wallace, tackling  “Good People” – see his impressions at https://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/david-foster-wallace-good-people/

Katherine at The Writerly Reader posted about “The Monster” by Lidiya Zinovyeva-Annibal – Read her post at https://katenread.wordpress.com/2015/07/25/deal-me-in-week-31-the-monster/

Randall at Time Enough at Last is back from summer vacation and wrote about the Arthur Robinson story, “The Boy on the Train” http://timeenuf.blogspot.com/2015/07/deal-me-in-week-27-boy-on-train-by.html

I read my second story in DMI 2015 from Jason Sizemore, “Yellow Warblers” – see my post by scrolling down or clicking https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/yellow-warblers-by-jason-sizemore/

James at James Reads Books shares two works this week, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Finder” and Jessica Mitford’s “You-All and Not You-All: A Southern Potpourri” http://jamesreadsbooks.com/2015/07/22/jesscia-mitford-vs-ursula-k-le-guin-a-deal-me-in-short-story-challenge/

See you next week!

“Yellow Warblers” by Jason Sizemore



For week 30 of Deal Me In 2015, I drew the nine of spades, which I had assigned to the Story, “Yellow Warblers” from Jason Sizemore’s collection “Irredeemable.” Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because I posted about another story (“Sleeping Quartet“) by this author a couple months back.

Yellow Warblers”

He’d lived long enough to know the way of the spirits, to listen when they shouted across the heavens to warn the other side of danger.”
When I picked a couple stories from this collection for Deal Me In, I confess I based my selection on titles only, and, as an amateur birdwatcher for twenty years, this title appealed to me. I also knew the collection included stories that “are dark, powerful and unsettling,” so I was curious as the title’s meaning. I’m not sure I ever found out, which is okay.

Few conquests in the history of humanity have been absolute or “complete.” There are always pockets of resistance or remote areas that maybe the conquerors “just don’t care enough about” to fully bring under their rule. Think about the Kurds in modern day Iraq, or how hard Afghanistan has been to manage for its sundry invaders/conquerors. Maybe this phenomenon would hold true in the case of an extra-terrestrial conquest as well. Such appears to be the case in this story. It starts peacefully enough with a commonplace scene of rustic Appalachia. An old man, Jeremiah, is sitting on a church pew praying. Outside a Kentucky Warbler sings “joyfully.” But maybe not all is right. A visitor has arrived…

“The alien moved with a grace befitting its slender build and smooth, alabaster skin. The old man had seen one of these before. A Shadow , they’d called it. It had been… what… twenty-three years since last he’d seen one? But there it was, no mistaking. Those large almond eyes in an oval, slightly humanoid face.”
As you might guess, the way the peaceful Jeremiah wants to welcome the visitor is more than slightly different from that of his neighbors.

I found the following interesting observation in one online review of the “Irredeemable” collection. It rang true to me, and is especially apropos to this particular story, which actually included the line, “Xeno-what?” in its dialogue. :-)

Appalachian cultural history shows a tendency toward xenophobia.’” People from outside this region will know the opposite is true as well: aliens (literal or figurative) to this region tend to fear it, and the stories in Irredeemable both capitalize on and castigate that fear.”

This story may be read on line here

Have you read any good short stories set in Appalachia? Care to recommend any? :-)

(above: the yellow warbler I know from my birdwatching (I see these all the time); below: a Kentucky Warbler from the story – I almost never spot one around these parts…)

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 864 other followers