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

 

“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.

Deal Me In 2017 – January Summary

IMG_3919

So, yes, my best-laid plans of producing a weekly wrap-up post (as I did in 2015) have fallen by the wayside.  The simple fact is that there are just too many participants this year to make that practical given the limited time I have to spend on this blog. BUT what I have been trying to do – and what I urge YOU to do as well – is sharing posts that I see and read on Twitter using the hashtag #DealMeIn2017. If you are a twitter user as well you can use the hashtag and help provide a sort of one-stop shopping for those of us who want to see what everyone else in the challenge has recently read and what their thoughts about it were. Check this link to see what’s been shared on Twitter thus far. See how easy that was?

By my back-of-the-envelope-math, there will be over 1,300 stories/essays/poems/plays read this year for Deal Me In 2017. That’s a big number, and one we should be proud of!

I also love the fact that we have a lot of new participants this year, some of whom seem quite gung-ho about the challenge.  New blood is always good!

What other tips or advice do I have for Deal Me In participants?

  1. Be supportive of the others doing the challenge.  Read their posts, comment on their posts, share their posts, or just “like” their posts to let them know you’ve been there. The Deal Me In “community” (does that sound pretentious?) has become for me a great place to learn of new authors and stories that I will read in the future.
  2. Don’t feel obligated to post about every single story. Some do, but the challenge is to READ the stories.  Posting is the gravy. The pressure to write a post every week can become a burden and lead to the challenge becoming stale or tedious
  3. If you are posting about the stories, use the special characters for the suits in a deck of cards. They can help spice up your posts. You can “type” the suit symbols by using the shortcuts Alt+3 (♥♥Hearts♥♥) Alt+4 (♦♦Diamonds♦♦), Alt+5 (♣♣Clubs♣♣), Alt+6 (♠♠Spades♠♠)
  4. Another way to “add value” is to share playing card pictures with your posts.  Several of us do it already, but you may be amazed to see all the playing card images available out there if you Google your card. I’ve mentioned to several participants that Deal Me In challenge has actually made me a collector of decks of playing cards. I have a box full of them at home now. 🙂

Time allowing, I will try to do some kind of monthly post to the DMI participants this year but no promises.  And if I do, I’ll end them with a question like this one:

♥ ♦What is the favorite story/essay/poem/play you’ve read thus far in the early going, and more importantly WHY is it your favorite?♣ ♠

See you next month – and keep up the good work!

The Mongerji Letters by Geetha Iyer – selection #4 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card: ♠5♠ 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: “The Mongerji Letters” from Orion magazine. As of this post’s publishing, the story is available on line at https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-mongerji-letters/  I own a copy of the story via The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 collection.

The Author: Geetha Iyer – yet another new to me author. To quote Orion Magazine’s info on her, she “…was born in India and grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and moved to the United States to study biology. She has since become an MFA student at Iowa State University’s Creative Writing & Environment program. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry bent toward place-based and science writing.” She currently lives in Panama City, Panama. You may visit her website at https://geethaiyer.wordpress.com

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.

The Mongerji Letters

“Since the collapse of one of the last dynasties of the common era and the subsequent end of the era itself, historians have searched for descendants of the Mongerji family, as well as descendants of the scribes who, under their employ, collected samplings of flora and fauna from around the world. The only evidence discovered thus far are the letters that follow. They are from Mr. Mongerji, his wife, Kavita, and two of the three Mongerji children, all addressed to a Mr. Chappalwala, thought to have been the last of the Mongerjis’ scribes. Archivists continue to seek Mr. Chappalwala’s side of the correspondence.”

This was a rather bizarre story. The introductory paragraph quoted above is all the grounding that the reader is given. The nature of the world in which these letters were written (“created” is probably a better word) is left primarily to our imagination. What is clear, however, is that the family whose members wrote them are in decline, probably throwbacks to an older world – i.e., the “common era” referred to in the intro. The correspondence is multi-generational, but the letters covered in this story seem to span 15 years, from “__18” to “__33” – the first two digits that would tell us the century are strategically omitted…

The letters have some kind of magical quality as the envelopes that contain them also contain somehow “compressed” examples of the flora and fauna from wherever the Chappalwalas are sending them, often resulting in near tragic events upon opening – in once case a giant tree springs out of the envelope and it is all the Mongerjis can do to get it stuffed back in.  Another time, an opened envelope floods their living room with water and a living polar bear(!)

I won’t claim I totally understood this story, but it did leave me with a vague impression of the decline or even”decay” of the natural world’s beauty due to a continued siege by humanity’s progress.  The writing was superb too, and the perspectives of the different Mongerji children of the current generation added additional layers to the story’s complexity as well.

The “magic” property of the letters is not explained, but I liked the following passage because it refers to one of my favorite creatures, discovered via a prior Bibliophilopolis read – this one for The R.I.P. Challenge – The Axolotl!

“I asked Dhidhi whether if we left the fruit outside the envelope the eggs would hatch, but she said that everything trapped inside the Chappalwala envelopes was like an axolotl — it would never really grow up.”

Below: some of the beautiful artwork from Orion Magazine where the story was originally published. Did you notice the envelopes in each picture?


Playing card image in DMI header from http://nonregistrability55.rssing.com/chan-24181537/all_p1.html

“The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson – selection #3 of Deal Me In 2017

The Card: ♥Q♥ Queen of Hearts

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, 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. the future. She’s 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 Anything Box” which I own as part of the anthology “The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction” anthology, volume 2. I have several stories from this book included in my Deal Me In list for 2017.

The Author: Zenna Henderson (pictured at above right), who I’ve never read before. She was “an American elementary school teacher and science fiction and fantasy writer,” according to Wikipedia. Many of her stories feature a school setting or the southwestern United States (she was from Arizona) – or both.  She also wrote a series of stories about “The People” – humanoids who are here on Earth because their home planet was destroyed. Sounds intriguing – perhaps I will explore these sometime…

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.

“The Anything Box”

“I swore by the pale hollow of her cheek that never, never again would I take any belief from anyone without replacing it with something better.”

The narrator of this story is a teacher. A teacher in what seems to be a school of the future, though that is never really explained in detail. It certainly doesn’t feel like a bright future either. That part is probably irrelevant to the impact of the story. It’s the story of Sue-lynn, one of the narrator’s students. One she doesn’t quite know what to make of at first, one who is quiet and keeps to herself for the most part…

Eventually, though, the teacher notices some peculiar behavior:

“She had finished her paper – far ahead of the others as usual – and was sitting at her table facing me. She had her thumbs touching in front of her on the table and her fingers curving as though they held something in between them – something large enough to keep her fingertips apart and angular enough to bend her fingers as if for corners. It was something pleasant that she held – pleasant and precious.”

Sue-lynn seems like a nice enough kid, but the other children have, of course, noticed that she is “different.” Her imaginary “anything box” – for that is what she’s holding in front of her – is her way to escape from her troubled home life. Her mother and father frequently quarrel, leading to the husband disappearing for long stretches of time. One male fellow-student in particular is disturbed by her and causes trouble. The teacher intervenes on Sue-lynn’s behalf, and gets close enough to her to eventually find out more about her “imaginary” box. Or is it imaginary?

I’m not 100% sure what the author intended the story to be about, but I think it may resonate with many readers the way that it did with me – that is to say in recalling school days and how, as we age, our capacity for imagination is slowly and methodically snuffed out. One of the narrator’s mean-spirited fellow teachers seems to have it in for Sue-lynn, frequently calling her “disturbed”, etc., even making us wonder if ““Maybe a child can smile a soft, contented smile and still have little maggots of madness flourishing somewhere inside,” but fortunately Sue-lynn has a champion on her side in the form of the narrator.

At one point, though, even the narrator feels compelled to intervene and stop the child’s “overactive” imagination and advises that her “anything box” is “just for fun” and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. A crisis follows in which Sue-lynn “loses” the box and blames her teacher. Later she has a “fainting spell” and a doctor is called. She seems to recover but only to the point that she “puttered along quite satisfactorily except that she was a candle blown out.”

 

Does the story end happily, though? If you’d like to read for yourself, it’s part of several anthologies. One is the one I own, and is available in kindle version for just $7.99:

anything-box

Have YOU read anything by this author before? What else by her would you recommend?

Next week: The five of spades and  Geetha Iyee’s “The Mongerji Letters” – yet another new-to-me author.

“By the Time You Read This” by Yannick Murphy – selection#1 of Deal Me In 2017

The Card: ♥4♥ Four of Hearts

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, the suit of Hearts is the domain of Atropos, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s sings of things that are to be.

The Selection: “By the Time You Read This” from my copy of the 2015 Pushcart Prize Best of the Small Presses anthology (# 39)

The Author: Yannick Murphy, an award-winning author currently living in Vermont. For more about her, check out her website at http://www.yannickmurphy.com (where the pic at left is found)

IMG_3919-0

What is the Deal Me in Challenge? 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.

“By the Time You Read This”

“I killed myself because I couldn’t imagine those memories living alongside the more recent memories of you cheating on me.”

You can tell already this will be a cheery story, right? I guess it isn’t, although there are a few quite humorous moments in it as well. I didn’t know anything about the story when I chose to add it to my Deal Me In roster, I was only attracted by the title, which included the word “time.” I didn’t know it was about a suicide note. Or was it?

The writer of the note includes sections addressed to several people, predominantly her husband and daughter, but also a couple former teachers, her UPS man, and – of course – the other woman, who is the source of some of the humor. All other sections of the “suicide note” begin “Dear xxxx” (insert husband’s or daughter’s name, etc.) but the writer feels “Dear Slut” is too ridiculous. Check out the following:

“Dear whatever your name is, of course, in my eyes, you are Dear Slut, but I should really take the ‘dear’ out anyway because ‘dear’ and ‘slut’ are probably too incongruous to appear one right after the other and there is probably some rule my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Sun, could tell me about placing two incongruous words right next to each other. So, Slut, I am writing this to let you know…”

I liked how she solved the incongruity problem there, didn’t you? I also chuckled when future passages came around and began simply with, “Slut,”. Good stuff.

Toward the end of the story, the writer of the note seems to start having doubts about completing her suicidal act, noting certain things that she will miss out on if she follows through. I, for one, was glad these rays of hope entered this story with a dismal subject matter. Perhaps Atropos’s scissors will not yet snip the thread of her life after all.

The story also felt a little gimmicky (though writing a lengthy suicide note such as this one is a challenging exercise – and one which I think Murphy succeeds quite well at). I suppose “Write a suicide note from a jilted woman” would also make a good writing prompt for students, wouldn’t it?


This story originally appeared in issue 60 of Conjunctions Magazine (above; I like that cover art, too!), a biannual literary journal published by Bard College in New York, pictured below. (Man, that’s a lot of ivy…)

Deal Me In Coincidence: In doing the Deal Me In Challenge over the years, I’ve always enjoyed spotting coincidences of timing that may be found in the randomized order of the stories. This week’s story included a passage that is quite topical about now: “At times he takes things very seriously, and once, while watching election returns, he threw our television out the window when a certain president was elected that  he didn’t like.”

What about you? Have you read any stories or other worksof literature that focused on suicide? How effectively do you think they were done?

On deck for week 2 of Deal Me In 2017:  “Mr. Voice” by Jess Walter

« Older entries