Donald Barthelme, “The School”


This is my second entry in the “2019 Deal Me In Short Story Challenge” hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  This week, I drew a 5 of Clubs, which took me to Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” originally published in 1975.  I found the story in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.

Donald Barthelme (pictured above), who lived from 1931-1989, was known for writing short stories that are “surreal” or “postmodern” or “experimental.”  These are all fancy ways of saying his stories don’t make a lot of sense.  (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

“The School” is narrated by a teacher named Edgar.  He starts the story by explaining how his 30 students all planted orange trees as part of their education.  All of the trees died.  Then we learned that the children’s snakes all died as well. So did the herb gardens they worked on, as did the tropical fish.  The puppy, too, died, as did the Korean orphan, two children, and one child’s father.

Eventually, the children asked the teacher what happened to  all of these dead creatures? Where did they go?  The teacher said nobody knew.

And then the children asked “is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life.  Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.”  (310)

In recompense, the children wanted the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant, Helen, in front of them.  They want to know how lovemaking is done.

The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but he kissed Helen a few times on the brow.  Then a gerbil knocked on the door and walked into the class, after which “The children cheered wildly.”

That’s how the story ends.

I would say this story is a postmodern experiment in surrealism.   Or maybe a surreal experiment in postmodernism.  In other words, I really don’t know what it means.  I would guess it is a meditation on the inevitable cycle of life, death, lovemaking, and gerbils.  But mostly death.  So you might as well make love with the teaching assistant.

Six Degrees of Separation: “French Lieutenant’s Woman” to “Rebecca”


Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest hosts a monthly meme called “6 Degrees of Separation.”   She writes, “On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month, the starting book is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.  I haven’t read this book but I did see the movie adaptation, which starred Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep also starred in The Hours, an adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham.  The Hours explores one day in the lives of three women.  One of these women is Virginia Woolf, who is writing the novel Mrs. Dalloway, the novel on which The Hours is based.

The main character of Mrs. Dalloway is a woman named Clarissa.  The novel also features a character named Septimus, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock. Septimus’s doctor plans to send him to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Veterans suffering from mental illnesses stemming from World War I are also featured in Regeneration by Pat Barker.  Rivers, the doctor, is portrayed as a complex and sympathetic character.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel with a much more critical portrayal of a mental asylum.  The movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest starred Jack Nicolson.

Nicholson also starred in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.  That novel scared the bejesus out of me when I read it back in the 1970s.

Another book which scared me when I was younger is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

I travelled from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Rebecca.  They seem like good companion novels to me.  Both feature lonely young women, and both are set on the southern coast of England.

Now it’s your turn to try!  Post a link to your Six Degrees of Separation in the comments section.


What Pegman Saw in Harare

Harare Zimbabwe

Benjamin does not know how long he has been walking.  The sun is battering his head. When will it leave him alone?  Just yesterday, his life was full of promise.  His car repair business was starting to succeed.  His boy, Solomon, was starting to walk.  He smiles as he recalls Solomon’s laugh.  Such an intelligent child! So much like him—his eyes, his nose.  Solomon, unfortunately, has his mother’s large mouth.

That woman could not keep her mouth shut.  Why could she not keep her tongue from wagging?  Always criticizing, always wanting more.  It was not his fault.  Last night, she knew Benjamin had a massive headache.  And yet she continued her harangue.  He just wanted her to stop talking, just to shut up for a minute.   He had not meant to kill her.  He just needed to keep walking.  If only the sun would leave him alone.


This piece of flash fiction was inspired by this week’s “What Pegman Saw” prompt.  The challenge is to write a complete story of 150 words or fewer based on the photo prompt.  For more information, click here.

Changing Seasons: February


I am participating in Cardinal Guzman’s Changing Seasons photography challenge.

The challenge is to find one picture that best represents that month.

The highlight of this month for me was a weekend getaway my husband and I took to the Outing Lodge.  (See here for more photos.)   We stayed on Valentine’s Day weekend, and the trip included a lavish Valentine’s Day dinner at the lodge, followed by tango lessons.  This photo serves as my souvenir of that evening.

How was your February?


The Kim Jong-un Weight-Loss Regime

Who wants to be fat when the apocalypse comes?

This post is part of my Live from America! series.  For information that series, click here.

Dear ALF:

I wish you and your fellow Advanced Life Forms a happy new year.  (Now that I think of it, though, I don’t know if your creatures have years—be they old or new.  Oh, well.  Whatever.  (“Whatever” is what my people say when they do not want to be required to use language to communicate.)

In today’s headlines are reports that North Korea has detonated its first hydrogen bomb.  Since the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is bat-shit crazy and runs a bat-shit crazy regime, this news probably means the world will probably be coming to an end in the next few years.

You know what that means, right?  It means there is no time to waste in achieving our weight loss goals! Yes, ALF, I have made a New Year’s Resolution to lose some weight.  This is what my people do in early January of every year.   Statistics tell us that 70% of Americans need to lose weight and the other 30% believe they should lose weight.  That means everybody is either on a diet or should be on a diet or feels guilty for not being on a diet or is in such a Big Mac stupor that they do not know what the word “diet” means.

Our weight-loss obsession is actually excellent news because the diet industry is what keeps the American economy from collapsing under the weight of all of the McDonald’s arches.   According to ABC news “the annual revenue of the U.S. weight-loss industry, including diet books, diet drugs and weight-loss surgeries” is $20 billion.

$20 billion is a lot of money, ALF.  To give you some perspective, the annual gross domestic product of Namibia, a country in southern Africa, is $13.11 billion   Clearly, the Namibians need to go on more diets in order to increase their GDP.

But, I digress.  My point, ALF, is that I am doing my part to keep the economy alive by beginning my weight loss journey.  Knowing the world will end soon, thanks to people like Kim Jong-un, is a wonderful motivator for me.  Who wants to be fat when the apocalypse comes?

I do not mean to imply that Kim Jong-un is all bad.  In fact, I admire his leadership style in many ways and have implemented some of his ideas in my own job.  For example, I learned last year, that he requires his people to sport haircuts that mimic his own.


Who wouldn’t want that haircut?

I think this is a great idea, and last year, I tried to enforce it on the minions in my department.  My hair looks like this, by the way.

Debra xmas

My people are not as docile as North Korea’s, though.  Some of the male members of the department muttered something about their baldness getting in the way of the requisite haircut.

But again, I digress. Back to weight loss.  I am focused and motivated to succeed on my Kim Jong-un nuclear weight loss diet.  Who wants to join me?  (You will need to copy my hairstyle, of course.)

When are you reading? Challenge

Sam at Taking on a World of Words is hosting a When are you reading? challenge that I am pledging to complete.  The challenge is based on when a work is set (or written).  I have reproduced her rules below.  Check it out and join me!

Thanks, Sam!


Happy New Year! It’s January 1st and that means it’s day 1 of the 2016 When Are You Reading? Challenge! In case you missed my previous post, I’ve put the ‘rules’ below. Please let me know if you’ve decided to join, I’d love to have you all be a part of this fun challenge.

I’m hosting the 3rd annual When Are You Reading? Challenge! It’s a short challenge, only 12 books, which challenges you to read books set or published in different time periods. Those periods are:

  • Pre 1500
  • 1500-1599
  • 1600-1699
  • 1700-1799
  • 1800-1899
  • 1900-1919
  • 1920-1939
  • 1940-1959
  • 1960-1979
  • 1980-1999
  • 2000-Present
  • The Future

At only one book a month, this one has always been fast and fun. Often I find the books I was going to read anyway fit into the time periods. There are very few ‘rules’ associated with the challenge. I put it in quotations because you’re free to do what you want with it.


  • Determination of what year a book belongs in is the decision of the participant. On the whole, choose a year where the largest part of the action occurs or the most important event.
  • I will compile a list of those participating on this page but you must link back to this page to be added to the list so that other participants can find us!

It works best if you dedicate a page or post to tracking your books so I can link to it. I had four participants last year and I’m hoping to up that again this year.

If  you’re interested, let me know and grab the graphic my fabulous husband designed (isn’t he great?!) to let others know you’re participating. I can’t wait for you to join!

Pages for the 2016 challenge are up now. Please click on over here and here for more info.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

1100 Mile Challenge Report

Dear readers:  A year ago, I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s long hike and pledged to bike 1000 miles and hike 100 miles in 2015.

I succeeded in biking 1000 miles without too much difficulty, mostly on local (Minnesota) country roads and bike paths.  It was a fun experience for the most part.  (It helped that we had a really nice summer–not too hot or humid for once.)

I ditched the hiking challenge, though.  (After getting physical therapy for my knee, my PT wanted me to do some jogging just to see if I could.  My knee was fine, so I decided to focus on combining walking/jogging rather than hiking.)

Here are a few snapshots from some of my rides.

Do you have any challenges for 2016?

Clarice Lispector, “Near to the Wild Heart”

Clarice Lispector

My South American selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge is Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart.  (It was originally written in Portuguese and entitled Perto do Coracao Selvagem.)  Clarice Lispector has been hailed by critics as “something exceptional” and possessed of a “bewildering verbal richness,” and her style has much in common with famous modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Near to the Wild Heart was written when Lispector was only 23 years old.  The novel caused a sensation when it published because it was so different from anything Brazilians were accustomed to reading. The novel attempts to convey the inner life of a young woman named Joana, from her childhood until her early adulthood.

Lispector’s style is striking.  There is very little plot to speak of.  Instead, we are presented with snippets of Joanna’s impressions of the world.  Sometimes her thoughts are beautifully imagistic, as when she confronts her grief from her father’s death by staring at the sea.

“She climbed down from the rocks, walked weakly across the solitary beach until she received the water at her feet.  Squatting, her legs wobbly, she drank a little sea.  She rested there like that.  Sometimes she half-closed her eyes, right at sea level and swayed, so sharp was the sight—just the long green line, uniting he eyes with the water infinitely.  The sun burst through the clouds and the little sparkles scintillating on the waters were tiny fires flaring up and dying out.  The sea, beyond its waves, looked at her from affair, quiet, with no crying no bosom.  Big, big. Big, she smiled.  And suddenly, just like that, unexpectedly, she felt something strong inside her, a funny thing that made her shake a little.” (32)

At other times, though, her thoughts tend towards the abstract; at times the novel reads almost like philosophy or aesthetic theory.

“Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.  Of the same quality as a thought so intimate that when heard, it revealed itself.  As a thought so intimate that when she heard someone repeat the slightest nuances of its sounds, Joana was surprised at how she had been invaded and scattered.  She didn’t feel its harmony any more when it became popular—then it was no longer hers.  . . . Joana didn’t identify profoundly with all sounds.  Only with the pure ones, where what she loved was neither tragic nor comic.” (37)

I think that ultimately Near to the Wild Heart is about what it means to be human—or perhaps, even more basic, what it means to be alive.  Joana desires to feel fully alive, fully vital, which, I think for her means to reduce the distance between her core being and her thoughts, which seem to be an impediment to true life.  When her teacher asks her what is good and what is bad, Joana replies, “Good is living….Bad is not living” (43).  When she says “not living,” she does not mean death; she means not being fully alive, being deadened to existence.

Because Joana’s views of good and bad are unconventional, she has a tendency to alienate the people around her.  When she is still under the guardianship of her aunt, for example, she steals something, just because she can.  Her aunt is horrified at the theft, but also at Joana’s strangeness.  She calls her a “viper” and sends her away to boarding school because she finds her company unsettling.

Although Joana’s life is far from conventionally happy, she does seem to find satisfactions of a sort.  By the end of the novel, she feels something rising in her, something that feels like the life force she so cherishes.  What she wants most is that,

“the long gestation of her childhood would end and from her painful immaturity her own being would  burst forth, free at last, at last! . . . And one day it will come, yes, one day the capacity as red and affirmative as it is clear and soft will come in me. . . a day will come on which all my movement will be creation, birth, I will break all the noes that exist in me, I will prove to myself that there is nothing to fear, that everything I am will always be where there is a woman with my beginning, I will build inside me what I am one day, with one gesture of mine my waves will rise up powerful, pure water drowning doubt….” (158)

And one day she will “rise as strong and beautiful as a young horse” (158).

Near to the Wild Heart is undoubtedly an unusual book, one that is fascinating in its own way.  However, although I am a big fan of literary modernism, I cannot say that I loved this book.  I’m not sure whether or not I want to read another work by Lispector.  For me, at least, there is a coldness to Lispector’s explorations of her character’s inner life that leaves me…well, cold.  Perhaps this is because Lispector seems more interested in what it means to be alive than what it means to be human.   Joana’s goal, after all, is to be as vital as a horse.   I guess I am like Joana’s aunt in that I find the character off-putting and not somebody I want to spend a lot of time probing.

With this post, I have now completed my own 2015 Around the World Reading Challenge, with three days to spare.  Yay, me!