Deal Me In 2014: Week 4 Wrap-up

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Below are links to new posts since last week’s wrap up post. If you have one to add, either leave a link in the comments here, or I’ll include in next week’s wrap up. Great stories this week, everyone! I really enjoyed browsing through the posts!

Candiss at “Read the Gamut” offers up a triple header, reviewing Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” and The Ambrose Bierce classic, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
http://readthegamut.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/deal-me-in-challenge-hit-me-for-three-stories-4-3-and-2-with-bierce-welty-and-nabokov/

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Dale at Mirror with Clouds tackled Graham Greene’s humorous story “A Branch of the Service
http://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/a-branch-of-the-service-by-graham-greene/#comments

Katherine at The Writerly Reader writes about one of Ray Bradbury’s “darker” stories, “Quicker than the Eye”
http://katenread.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/deal-me-in-week-4-quicker-than-the-eye/

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The Returning Reader read another one from The Granta book of the African Short Story, this time drawing Ivan Vladislavic’s “Propaganda by Monuments
http://returningreader.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/short-story-4-propaganda-by-monuments-ivan-vladislavic/

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James at Ready When You Are, C.B. tries to find a connection between Isak Dinesen’s “The Dreaming Child” and George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale.” Will he succeed? Click below and find out.
http://readywhenyouarecb.blogspot.in/2014/01/deal-me-in-short-story-challenge-george.html

Hanne at Reading on Cloud 9 shares with us the story, “Celio Falls” by Heather Brittain Bergstrom
http://readingoncloud9.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/celilo-falls-by-heather-brittain-bergstrom/

Jay at Bibliophilopolis (that’s me!) found himself back in Mother Russia for the second week in a row with Maxim Gorky’s “Twenty-Six and One
https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/but-of-tanya-we-never-spoke-ill/

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“But of Tanya we never spoke ill…”

Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge 2014: Story #4

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This week I drew the King of Clubs and checking my roster of stories was led to this one. Though it’s still early in the year, Maxim Gorky’s story, “Twenty-six and One” has been my favorite of the four stories I’ve read thus far. I also read Gorky as the final story of DMI2013, and enjoyed immensely his story “One August Night.”

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I also like stories that have a somewhat mysterious title. “Twenty-six and one?” What could this be about? A successful season of Gorky’s favorite football team? No, of course not that. The twenty-six and one are people. The twenty-six being the “employees” of a bakery, who spend an existence of dull drudgery in the semi-basement workroom, kneading dough for biscuits day after day, month after month, year after year. Among of the twenty-six is also our story’s narrator. And who is the “one?” She’s a lovely sixteen year-old chambermaid who lives in the same building the houses the bakery. Every day she visits the “little prisoners” – as she affectionately refers to the workers – stepping down the four steps into their cellar and playfully demanding “give me biscuits!”

This is Tanya, the one thing that makes their dreary existence bearable. Gorky describes the situation this way: “…though our hard labor turned us into dull oxen, we nevertheless remained human beings, and like all human beings we could not live without something to worship.” It seemed to this reader that the environment which Gorky has depicted has reached something of an equilibrium. Though unhappy or even miserable, the workers would never leave their precious Tanya. In their conversations while at work, they often discuss other, “low” women in rude and disgusting terms, but “of Tanya we never spoke ill.”

This equilibrium may have lasted years. May have. A catalyst for change is introduced, however, when one of the other employees (not from the twenty-six, but in a higher, “white bread baker’s” position) is fired and his replacement turns out to be a somewhat dashing former soldier. The former soldier wears a “satin vest and a watch with a gold chain” and, though a bit of a dandy, is friendly to the twenty-six (not condescending like the other white-bread bakers). In conversation with the twenty-six the soldier admits “How lucky I am with women, eh? It is very funny. Just a wink and I have them.” One can guess in what direction this story might go, no? The soldier’s successes thus far have been with the tawdry “embroidery girls” who also work in the building. Upon listening to the soldier boast of his conquests, the baker that supervises the twenty-six’s work is foolish enough to comment to him that, “You need no great strength to fell little fir-trees, but try to throw down a pine…” Suddenly Tanya’s virtue is threatened… Whether it’s a happy ending or not I won’t say. I will say that Gorky’s depiction of the workers’ condition and their psyche rang very true.

This story is available to read on-line in many places. One is http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/TwenSix.shtml

I also enjoyed reading the biographical info about Gorky in the introduction to my copy of “Twenty-Six and One (and Other Stories)” and learned a lot about him I didn’t know. He lived a large part of his life as a “tramp” wandering from place to place, yet always “reading and studying feverishly.” It is said thatit fell to him “to write the poem of vagrancy” and that “…the introduction of tramps in literature is the great innovation of Gorky.” What about YOU? Have you read Gorky? What do you know of him,and which works would you recommend?

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Another Day in The Era of Not Quite

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A little while back, I posted about the story, “Against Specificity” by Douglas Watson, from his collection “The Era of Not Quite.” Last week, I found myself with a little unanticipated free time and was able to get some ad hoc reading done. So I turned back to Watson’s slim volume of stories and read the rest of them. I was impressed with the quality of these stories and also with how well, despite how short several of them were, they conveyed many thought-provoking themes. The “star” attraction was easily the story from which the collection takes its title, “The Era of Not Quite.”

I’m a habitual underliner/highlighter when I read, and I can often go back to a previously read book and gauge how much I enjoyed a book by the “per capita” highlights. When reviewing this story for a potential quote or two to use for this post, I was surprised at how densely highlighted it was.

The Era of Not Quite relates the story of Hal Walker, a middle aged, shy and timid man who is an avid reader and as a result of recently reading novels by Samuel Beckett realizes he has “…been living like a Beckett character – someone waiting around for life to begin or end.” Hal’s undemanding job (he works at a phone company, and his job is to update the phone directory when someone dies) allows him plenty of time to read.

His reading opens his eyes to the many shortcomings of his life, and one day he arises deciding it is “a fine day on which to risk everything.” In Hal’s case, this means telling the town librarian, Eileen, about his love for her. She has always been nice to him, and in his limited scope of experience in the ways of the world, he reads more into this than is intended. He shows up at the library with a red rose for her. (In one of my many highlighted passages, he contemplates “What a shame that love required the murder of flowers. Or did it? It seemed to in books, but perhaps in life it didn’t. Perhaps love didn’t require anything outside itself.”)

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Things don’t go as he hoped. If they did, we wouldn’t have this story, or I guess we may just have a different story. Eileen’s rejection (or at least what he interprets as such) throws him into further self-examination and recrimination. On his way out of the library a “a band of malevolent children ran past him, pointing at him and laughing.” He flushes and thinks, “do they already know what a fool he was? Does everyone know?”

The hapless Hal later turns his thoughts to a co-worker, Madge, who has also always been nice and, unlike most others, deigns to talk to him. He wonders what she thinks of him. He wonders “Did she read at all? If not, what on Earth did she do with her free time?” (Ha ha!) Pondering his situation, Hal thinks: “Now would be a good time to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych. He had always found the book comforting, especially when he was acutely lonely. When tangled up in small troubles, let Tolstoy lift your thoughts up to big troubles. That was the idea, anyway.”

He doesn’t own a copy of the book, though, since he usually borrows it from the library. With his wounds of rejection still fresh, he cannot face Eileen at his own library so hops on the “out of town bus” hoping to find a different library. The rest of the story deals with Hal’s “adventures” on the bus; he sees from the bus window a library in a neighboring town, but strangely doesn’t stop to “go into this library that was new to him and explore the countless worlds stored on its bookshelves.” He decides to head instead to the sea, which he has never seen but always dreamed about. I loved the ending:

“The sea didn’t care that Hal was coming to see it. The sea had its own problems, chief among them the terrific allure of the moon.

“Yes, the dry, barren moon exerted a great pull on the earthbound soup of life. Such is the way of things. It may even be that the sea originally sent life onto the land as a way of getting a little bit closer to the moon. Or maybe that is a fool hypothesis.

“What is certain is that the very fabric of the world yearns for that which it cannot reach.”

And so, in that last sentence, perhaps we learn why there are so many Hal Walkers in our world…

There were several other great stories in this collection (“The Man Who Was Cast into the Void” was another favorite) but none made as great an impression on me as this one. The book may be found on Amazon at  and the kindle version is “only” $7.69. Or you could ask for it in your local library – that’s would Hal Walker would do. 🙂

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

At the halfway point.

This weekend’s short story was the 26th of my year-long, one story per week reading programme. I am now halfway through, and what a number of great stories and authors I have discovered! (So much that I think I will have some kind of “Short Story Project Awards” post at the end of the year.)

The Willows

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Story 26, picked by my drawing the queen of spades from my short story selection deck,  was one of the best yet: Algernon Blackwood’s (somewhat long) story, “The Willows,” named by none other than H.P. Lovecraft as the best “weird story” ever written. I own this story as part of the great anthology “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I have read and enjoyed several stories from this weighty volume, and once again I’ll give a crediting nod to fellow blogger Nina, on whose blog “Multo(Ghost)” I first learned of the book. The Willows, first published in 1907, is a story of an interlude during two men’s canoe trip down the Danube river. They have the misfortune of stopping for the night on a small, acre-sized island, in a 50-mile stretch of the river between Vienna and Budapest where is found “a region of singular loneliness and desolation” in which the river sprawls into a swampy landscape dominated by small willow bushes (the transitory nature of the land does not allow for them to grow into full sized trees).

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On this island, the men slowly begin to realize that where they have decided to make camp is actually one of those rare points on the globe where the region of unknown forces and entities “touches ours – where the veil has become thin.” They spend a night listening to the strong winds blow and the narrator imagines all sorts of horrible reasons behind every slightest noise. His companion, (referred to throughout as only “the Swede”) though at first thought by the narrator to be a man “devoid of imagination,” is actually the first to catch on to the fact that they have blundering-ly trespassed where they neither belong nor are welcome.

“All my life I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region – not far removed from our own world in one sense yet wholly different in kind – where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs… are all as dust in the balance.”

What will become of them? Especially after damage to the canoe (caused by … the wind? They’d like to think so…) forces them to stay on the island a second night. I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you choose to read this wonderful story yourself (link below).

After reading this story, I feel as though just-returned from the Danube river myself, as Blackwood’s narrative earns that favorite compliment of many authors: “I felt like I was there!” I don’t know if I will ever see the Danube with my own eyes, but that river has long held a particular fascination for me. As a long-term student of ancient history and “the classics’, I always think of it as the, at one time, northern border of the great Roman Empire, separating it from the mysterious, barbarian-infested lands beyond…indeed, in the early part of the story, they pass the ruins of the once-mighty roman garrison at Carnuntum, grounds (pictured below) once trod by none other than Marcus Aurelius…

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Much longer than most of the short stories I have read this year, I barely got this one done “in one sitting.” In spite of its lengthiness, however, I encourage you to read it, as I feel its acclaim is well earned. It may be found “for free” in many places on line. One place that I found is here:

(below: the Danube river.  The action of this story takes place somewhere in the stretch between Vienna and Budapest)

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(Below: Algernon Blackwood – a prolific author of stories of the supernatural)

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The Old Switcheroo

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(above: Haruki Murakami)

There’s really just no way to write this post without spoilers, so be forewarned.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble deciding what book to start next, I’ll re-read a short story. I was in this situation Sunday and found myself once again turning to Haruki Murakmki’s collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” Murakami is an author of whom I was wholly ignorant just a few years ago and only discovered after joining the book blogging community (thanks, if I’m remembering correctly, to the blog, Dolce Bellezza). The story I chose, somewhat randomly, was the oddly-titled “New York Mining Disaster.”

I remember the first time I read this being reminded of the old song by the Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” I think we had this single in the house when I was a kid – maybe it was a b-side of something else, I don’t remember. I thought at the time it was a tribute to a real tragedy but, checking today, it seems it was totally fictional. I always thought that was such a weird title for a pop song. It was. It is also a title of a “weird” short story. Weird, but great.

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The story (as it appears in the collection I own) features an unnamed narrator, who starts by describing a strange friend who likes to go to the zoo during “typhoons” and sit in front of the animals and drink beer. We learn this friend is important to the narrator because the friend owns a suit that the narrator (who doesn’t own a suit) has had to borrow in order to attend a funeral. What is odd is that the narrator, being only in his late twenties, has had an unlikely number of similarly-aged friends die recently. It’s an incredible run of misfortune, especially considering their ages. What can it all mean? The narrator apologizes for not owning a suit himself, but rationalizes that he’s afraid “…if I buy funeral clothes, it’s like saying it’s OK if someone dies.” One of the deaths is a suicide, but the others are accidents

“Unlike my first friend, who killed himself, these friends never had the time to realize they were dying. For them it was like climbing up a staircase they’d climbed a million times before and suddenly finding a step missing.”

Another oddity of the narrator’s friend is that he “trades in” his girlfriend for a new one every six months. To the narrator, the new ones are indistinguishable from the old ones. They’re all essentially the same girl. At this point, the reader is surely trying to decide what ties all these things together. I know I was. Another episode involves the narrator and his friend discussing television, and the friend says, “One good thing about television, you can shut it off, and nobody complains.” He does so, and when they switch it back on later, as a man talks on the screen he says, “See? He didn’t even notice we switched him off for five minutes. When you switch it off, one side ceases to exist.”

The final episode involves the narrator at a New Year’s Eve party, where he meets a mysterious young woman who claims that she knows someone who looks “exactly” like him. He says he’d like to meet such a person, but she replies that it would be impossible. The man is dead. She claims she killed him, but is evasive as to how, joking at one point that she threw him into a beehive. She does say, however, that “It took less than five seconds. To kill him.” As their conversation ends, midnight is falling. This is almost the end of the story.

The scene fades out and is replaced by some trapped miners awaiting rescue. They snuff out their lamps to conserve air and struggle to listen for sounds of approaching rescuers over the creaking of supporting beams. Murakami writes:

“They waited for hours. Reality began to melt into darkness. Everything began to feel like it was happening a long time ago, in a world far away. Or was it happening in the future, in a different, far-off world? Outside people were digging a hole, trying to reach them. It was like a scene from a movie.”

I loved this ending. Somehow the trapped miners and the world of the narrator are related, but we don’t know how, exactly. It’s that kind of mystical air I’ve come to expect – and enjoy – in Murakami’s writing. I also enjoy endings that are open to interpretation on the reader’s part, as this one certainly is.

The real shock for me, though, was after reading the story this time, I looked it up on-line and discovered that, when originally published in The New Yorker, the passage with the trapped miners was placed at the beginning of the story. This seems a far less effective method than was presented when he included the story in the “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” collection, where it came to rest at “its proper place” at the end of the story. I’m glad I only read this story after “The Old Switcheroo” had been completed.

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Have YOU read this story? What do you think of Haruki Murakami?

(below: the first couple pages of the story as it appeared in the New Yorker (snapped on my iPad from the digital edition); you can see the part with the miners is placed at the beginning)

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“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway

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I always struggle to write my thoughts about classic stories or authors, likely thinking my humble writing will not do them justice, and that there is likely “nothing new under the sun” to be said about them. That said, below are some of my disorganized and rambling reactions to Hemingway’s short story classic, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which was the King of Clubs in my Project: Deal Me In this year

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You often hear it said that “nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.” And what is the ultimate deadline? Wouldn’t that be one’s own approaching death? I’ve never thought about it before today, but is that where the term DEADline comes from? (a quick check of my Merriam Webster app indicates not: “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.”) Interesting, but I digress… (big surprise there)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Harry is dying. “Stranded” on safari with the towering Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop, he is laid up with a gangrenous leg (from failing to tend immediately to a thorn scratch – and I suspect it is not coincidental to the story that he was felled by something relatively harmless instead of, say, being victimized by a charging rhinoceros). Help has been sent for, but it’s uncertain whether it will arrive in time. Attended by his wife and a few native servants, Harry has also begun to attract the attention of vultures, whose acute senses know a terminal case of gangrene when they smell one.

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We also are familiar with the concept of one’s life “flashing before one’s eyes” in cases of near death accidents and the like. Given that, I guess it only makes sense that a slower death would allow a slower replay of one’s life. This is what happens with Harry, a writer whose best works are already behind him. During the story he continually has “flashbacks” to other times in his life, reminding himself of opportunities lost and behavior that would have been better if altered. All the things he was planning to write about someday when he was fully “ready” will now likely be lost. He even blames his wealthy wife, whose patronage of him and his craft has only made him lazy and enabled him to become a heavy drinker. He realizes, though, in a period of lucidity, that it’s not her fault. He would’ve found another rich patroness if he hadn’t landed her.

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The wife remains hopeful that the rescuing plane will arrive soon, but when a hyena trots by the camp Harry has a realization:

“…just then it occurred to him he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.”

I loved the way Hemingway personified Death in the hyena, having it creep closer and closer in his imagination:

“…just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.
’Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull,’ he told her. ‘It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena.’”

Then later:

“It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move or speak…”

For those (likely few) who have not read the story, I don’t want to reveal the ending but hope that you will read it for yourself. One place I found where it may be read online for free is: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/heming.html

This is one of Hemingway’s most famous short stories, but there are many others. Which are your favorites?

(Below: the collection of Hemingway stories that I own)

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(Below: the 1936 issue <and below that, the first page of the story> of Esquire Magazine where this story first appeared)

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(The Snows of Kilimanjaro was also made into a movie – starring Gregory Peck {hey! that’s two posts in a row about works with a tie-in with Gregory Peck movies – how’s that for a coincidence}.)

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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

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Back in early 2006, after repeated recommendations by my friend Jim, I finally read Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. In case you’re not familiar with the series, one of the themes is that of a world that has run down, a civilization that has decayed to the point that it could hardly be called one any more. At one point, in one of the later books, the hero Roland stumbles upon a kind of “control room” where apparently the conditions of the world of his and his companions can be adjusted by changing the settings on the room’s control panels. Now, the fact that our lives are governed by forces beyond our ken is certainly not a new one (see Homer, for example) but this technological manifestation of a control room was a neat twist that I hadn’t encountered before.

What I think I’m coming to realize now, the more I read, is that many authors have access to such a control room of sorts – one that not only changes the destinies of the characters themselves, but also the laws of nature or rules of the world they inhabit. Many of the stories in Kevin Wilson’s collection, “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” take place in a world whose conditions have been tweaked ever so slightly. Behavior and environments that “could never be” in The Real World are present, and present with such a light touch that even a stodgy reader is able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the stories nonetheless…

Of the eleven stories in the book, only a couple didn’t “do it” for me. Of the remaining nine, there are some real treats. “Grand Stand-in” deals with a woman who works for a kind of rent-a-grandmother service for families whose children don’t have a grandmother and are thus robbed of the experience. (See? Not part of the world we live in, but not that far removed from reality.) Things go swimmingly for the stand-in Grandma until she gets a new “assignment” for a family whose grandma is… still living.

Another favorite was “The Museum of Whatnot,” featuring a young woman who works in a museum of curiosities. Her mother is concerned that she’ll “never meet a man” while working in such an oddball place, and it seems she may be correct – until a doctor begins visiting every day, just to look at the museum’s collection of spoons…

“The Shooting Man” is the darkest of the tales, but also quite effective. It would not be out of place in a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories:  A husband is insistent that his wife go with him and his friends to see a traveling sideshow-type performance that includes the famous “shooting man” – who appears to shoot himself in the forehead every night for curious audiences. She doesn’t want to go, but eventually relents. Predictably, she finds it gruesome and distasteful, while he becomes a bit too curious to learn what the “trick” is.

The title story involves three recent college graduates who, searching fruitlessly for some aim in life, having “devoted our academic careers to things we couldn’t seem to find applicability to the world we were now in.” So (why not?) they begin to tunnel in the backyard of one of their parents’ homes…

Probably my favorite though was the longest story titled “Go, Fight, Win” whose main character is a sixteen year old girl who is the “new girl” at school, and whose mother pushes her to try out for the cheerleading team. “Penny” doesn’t really want to, but does so for her mother’s sake, or perhaps just to get mom off her back. Add to the mix a strange and precocious neighbor boy and Penny’s obsession with building plastic model cars (Aha! That story finally explained the book cover picture) and the result is a great story. I enjoyed this short book and was also impressed with how convincingly he wrote from the female voice in some of these stories.

Has anyone else read any Kevin Wilson? I first heard about him last July through Melody’s blog, Fingers and Prose.

(Below: author Kevin Wilson. Looks an awful lot like poker player Tom Dwan!)

The author’s website may be found here.

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Strange Coincidences

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m a fan of coincidences, even though during the week between 8am and 5pm I officially “don’t believe in them” (I’m an Accountant/Banker by trade). But in my personal life I enjoy noting their appearance and speculating about their “cause.” Why does a certain person call you just after you’ve been thinking about them? Why does a certain song come on the radio at “just the right moment” to fit your mood? Yes, I know the answer is because they are in fact just that – coincidences. Simply the law of averages dictates that we’re bound to encounter them from time to time.

I was happy, though, when reading through Haruki Murakami’s wonderful book of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” to come across a story that fit in nicely with my fondness for coincidences.

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(**minor spoiler alert**) The story is titled “Chance Traveler” and begins with the author “intruding” into the story with a couple “tales of coincidence” from his own real life. These are the lead-in to a story of a friend of his that he re-tells. This story involves a more complex chain of coincidental components, beginning when his friend is reading in a coffee shop.

His book of choice for that day is Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.” After he gets up to take a break And use the restroom, he returns to find a woman sitting (and also reading) in the chair next to his. After a moment, the woman apologizes for interrupting him and asks if he is reading Dickens too, and it turns out they are reading the same book. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, especially since the book is not a current best-seller, and not even one of the more popular novels of Dickens.

Not surprisingly the two strike up a bit of a friendship, which later grows a bit awkward when it becomes evident she is looking for more out of their “relationship” than he is able to give. A certain physical characteristic of hers reminds him, however, of his estranged sister, and he ends up calling her (for the first time in ten years) at “just the right time” when she needs him.

At the end of the book, Murakami speculates that  “…perhaps chance is a pretty common thing after all. Those kind of coincidences are happening all around us, all the time, but most of them don’t catch our attention and we just let them go by. It’s like fireworks in the daytime. You might hear a faint sound, but even if you look up in the sky you can’t see a thing. But if we’re really hoping something might come true, it may become visible, like a message rising to the surface.”

There. I think I’ve summarized the story without giving too much away if you’d like to read it for yourself. The volume of short stories that contains this tale is full of other gems that are worth your time too, and I hope I’m not too out of line suggesting that you buy a copy as soon as possible. 🙂

(Below: Haruki Murakami – perhaps contemplating a new short story idea?)

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“His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”

James Joyce’s Short story “The Dead”

I read this story as part of my 2011 short story reading project (one story per week, 52 total for the year; I’m a little behind but have been catching up).  Like many of us, I find James Joyce somewhat tough going so it was not without some trepidation that I drew the Ace of Clubs from my random story selection generator – i.e. a standard deck of playing cards.   I checked the length and groaned a bit when I discovered it to be 38 pages. Ugh.  The story is from his collection, The Dubliners, published in 1914

****Warning: The following contains Spoilers****

This story took awhile to pick up speed – for me, at least. Most of the “action” takes place at a dinner party held by sisters Kate and Julia Morkan.  At the party we are introduced to many of the guests – and their shortcomings – (e.g. Freddy Malins, the man who drinks too much). We also learn that the ladies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, their nephew.  From their anticipation, we assume Gabriel is a kind of rock that “holds things together” for the ladies at their parties.

If you’re somewhat introverted, like me, parties like the one described are often exercises in tedium and social discomfort.  In fact, reading the story was also a bit of an exercise for me early on.  Eventually, though, we learn that Gabriel too is of this ilk. Though able to successfully navigate the social obstacle course such parties present, it seems he too would “rather be somewhere else.”

When an acceptable time to leave finally arrives, he is more than ready, as he has begun to feel a rekindled passion for his wife: “She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her.” After they make their escape and journey back to their lodgings he “… pressed her arm closely to his side, and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from their home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.”

His flames of passion are doused, however, when he learns that the origin of her odd mood, which is at least partially the cause for his heightened passion, is that a song from the dance at the party has recalled to her mind the memory of her first love, a young man who essentially “died for love of her.” Gabriel is hurt since, “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

Gabriel takes the realization of her true feelings fairly well, all things considered, and becomes reflective on his life and their lives together, musing as he lays down beside her in bed that “One by one, they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

I liked the story. Although the first 75% or so was pretty tough going, the payoff of the last six pages or so was very well worth it.  Apparently, there is speculation in the world of literary criticism on whether “the dead” in the title of the story refers to the actual dead, or to the living, who are as Gabriel says, “becoming shades…” I’m not sure. What about you, have you read any James Joyce? Have you read this story? What do YOU think of him (or it)?

(Author James Joyce)

I’ve read some more short stories…

In my ongoing effort to catch up on my 2011 reading project, I’ve read six more short stories (click on ‘deal me in selections’ to the left to see the full list) in the past few days. They are:

“A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins
“The Black Monk” by Anton Chekhov
“The Ash Tree” by M.R. James
“The Dead” by James Joyce
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle
“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie

This “burst” has put a further dent in my backlog and I’m down to just over twenty to go for the rest of the year. I plan to write posts related to at least a few of these stories, most of which i enjoyed immensely. Next up is Howard Pyle’s “The Cock Lane Ghost.” Can’t wait!

Have you read any of these stories? What are some of the favorite short stories you’ve read this year? Who are some of you favorite short story writers?

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