No, Not Binge-Watching, Binge-READING

“Binge-watching” has become quite common in today’s world – both the compound verb and the act itself. I myself have enjoyed a few watching binges. But this past weekend, I maxresdefaultspent a lot of my time binge-reading. Yes, at first one wouldn’t think there could easily be such a thing, as books take so much longer to read than episodes of your favorite tv series. Well, the solution is obvious: short stories can be binge-read. (“…and we’re just the guys to do it!”)

Back in late January, I mapped out 24 short stories to read during the 24 in 48 readathon and, as often is the case, failed to complete my mission. I didn’t even blog about the stories I read then, only tweeting updates to the #24in48 hashtag. The remaining stories had been kind of rotting on my TBR vine ever since, but I didn’t want to forget them and this past weekend I resolved to just “knock out” the rest of them. The exercise felt similar, emotionally, to the more common form of tv show binge-watching. As usual when I read through a batch of stories, I discovered some real gems, and I’d like to tell you about a few of my favorites:

“Irises” by Elizabeth Genovise, found in the 2016 edition of “The O. Henry Prize Stories” anthology. Uniquely told by an unborn baby narrator (!!) it provided poignant insight into a love affair.  “I am not yet a daughter but rather a subtle shift in the taste and color of her world, unfurling at the edges of her consciousness as the autumn does just before it erupts into deep reds and yellows.” Why is the narrator’s mother “ready” to have an affair? She’s an artist, specifically a ballet dancer, and he is a well-intentioned but “unfeeling” brute. “He has never known immersion in an art, never taken the artist’s gamble, and so the sheer foreignness of my mother’s commitment to dancing baffles him.” This was truly a great story with some of my favorite writing that I’ve encountered lately. I recommend you pick up a copy and read it for yourself. You can find out more about this author at https://www.elizabethgenovisefiction.org/

“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fischer from the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. A very effective format for a story about a “suicide-bomber-like” revolutionary of the future, in opposition to the ruling dystopian society called The New Dawn. A very short story, only forty-nine sentences long, and each one of them is a lie. If you weren’t aware of the title of the story, whether or not the sentences are lies, would not be immediately obvious, but by the end of the story, no knowledge of the title would be necessary. Bravo. The entire piece of flash fiction – at least the first draft – was written during a tedious lecture on medical statistics (the author is described as a fourth-year medical student in the story’s intro)

“Train to Harbin by Asako Serizawa, also from the 2016 edition of “The O. Henry Prize Stories” anthology. A hard-hitting story on a difficult subject – the World War II era war crimes of Japan in using Chinese prisoners for medical experiments. Told by one of the doctors/perpetrators who is, naturally, struggling with his role though he was – as the cliche goes – “only following orders.” A powerful story.

“You see, you must understand something: We had always meant to preserve lives. A few thousand enemies to save hundreds of thousands of our own? In that sense, I hardly think our logic was so remarkable or unique.”

“The Equationist” by J.D. Moyer, also from the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Rare among short stories in that it follows almost the entire life of the protagonist who, as a precocious young math student, decides that people can be understood as equations. Some linear, some circular, some exponential. One he can’t figure out is his classmate crush, Emily Lessard – “A chaos function, maybe. I’m just learning about those.”

I also read four stories from W.W. Jacobs’ collection “The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales,” all of which were good, but none as extraordinary as the four I list above (and none were as good as the two I’d already read during #24in48 – “The Lost Ship and “The Castaway”). Additionally, I enjoyed three more stories from the Welcome to the Greenhouse anthology (stories featuring – you guessed it – climate change)

I enjoyed my weekend binge-reading so much, I plan to make it a regular habit whenever I have a weekend largely free of other responsibilities. Maybe once or twice a season? As usual, I will randomize my reading order and have stories from four different sources; I’m assigning each to a card in a euchre deck to fit my “Deal Me In” challenge methodology.  For this batch, I’m continuing on in several of the sources I started for the Readathon, while adding a new source, that being the short stories found in recent issues of The New Yorker, to which I am a digital subscriber.

What about YOU? Have you ever binge-read? Have you ever binge-watched? I’m much more interested in binge-reading, but I’d like to hear about either, frankly. 🙂

spring 2018 deck

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The Boy With Fire in His Mouth by William Kelley Woolfitt – Selection 10 of #DealMeIn2018

The Card: ♦Three♦ of Diamonds

The Suit: For 2018, I have devoted the suit of ♦Diamonds♦ to stories from the anthology “Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet,” Edited by Clifford Garstang and published by Press 53. More details about this book may be found  at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O4GETQM/.

The Selection: The Boy With Fire in His Mouth – since this anthology includes stories from “all over the world,” when making my selections for Deal Me In 2018, I tried to pick ones from somewhere I didn’t know too much about. This one was set in Uganda, which I have only touched in my reading history via The Queen of Katwe, the story of the unlikely chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, later made into a feature film by Disney.

The Author:  William Kelley Woolfitt. According to the contributors section of the book, Woolfitt is currently a professor at Lee College in Tennessee. You may find a little more about him at his page on goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7834595.William_Kelley_Woolfitt

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details may be found here  but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants try to read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for the list of stories I’ll be reading in 2018. Check the sidebar for links to other book bloggers who are participating in this year’s challenge.

The Boy With Fire in His Mouth

“She said she had been given a treasure, the knowledge of how to let everything go.”

This is one of the shorter stories I’ve ever read for the Deal Me In Challenge over the years, checking in at just about a thousand words. We hit the ground running with our unnamed narrator receiving a call from his father that his mother had died (“in her sleep, unexpectedly but peacefully”) and thus he flies off to “the country of his birth,” Uganda.

His father reacts to his mother’s death almost as if he is happy to now be free to do whatever he wants: “…now he could eat, drink, and make merry.” The narrator laments that he hadn’t seen his mother again and thus “given her a final chance to tell me if there was anything I could do to make her happy, anything that was within my powers. Though she did’t believe she should be happy, or that I had any useful skills. She considered me a selfish middle-aged nobody, no wife, no child, no spine, no guts.”

Sadly, the narrator’s father dies too, only a week later, and largely from the excesses of his “newly unrestrained” lifestyle. Our narrator, perhaps is some mild form of shock, wanders Kampala, drinking waragi (a new word I learned this week), visiting the Kasubi Tombs and the marketplace – the latter where he sees the performer of the story’s title, “The Boy With Fire in His Mouth.” He also meets a woman with many children who he tries to help. She makes greeting cards and he goes through a mental inventory of all the things his mother would have done to help her. He thinks of the performer boy, whose lips he has seen to contain sores from his “art.” He wants to give the boy some petroleum jelly to help with the sores.

And that’s about all there is to it. In the contributor’s notes section of the book, the author talks about how Meredith Sue Willis advises writers to cut a third of the words from a first full draft because “trimming intensifies expression.” Woolfitt notes that his first draft of this story was about 2,300 words long, and included “more details about the narrators rakish father and austere mother.”  He concludes that that draft seemed like “a blabbermouth party guest, yammering for attention.”

His trimming of the story left me with more questions than answers. I can certainly understand that the death of just one parent would leave one reeling, and both- well that would seem to – at least – double the impact. I’m not sure what the narrator will “learn” or take away from this sad “homecoming,” but hopefully he will rise above the low expectations that his mother held where he was concerned. We don’t learn in the story where the narrator currently makes his home, but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

Below: The Kasubi Tombs in Kampala

kasubi tombs