Deal Me In 2015: Story #2 – “Electrification” by Mikhail Zoshchenko

deal me in smFor week #2 of the 2015 edition of the Deal Me In challenge, hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis, I’ve drawn my second Jack – the Jack of Spades, representing the story “Electrification” by Mikhail Zoshchenko.

My card:  Jack of Spades Jack of Spades

Source:  Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics)

About the author:  According to Wikipedia, Mikhail Zoshchenko was a Ukranian-Russian author and satirist in the Soviet era, living from 1895 to 1958.  He had broad appeal due to his “compact” and “accessible” style.

Synopsis:  The story, first published in 1924, is very short.  According to, the title of the story is taken from one of Lenin’s slogans:  “Communism is Soviet Power plus the Electrification of the Whole Country”.  (The entire story is reprinted at that link.)  It concerns a man and his wife and the changes they experience when electric lights are installed in their apartment.  This new symbol of increased prosperity proves a mixed blessing, illuminating the shabby nature of their lives – a state that had been dulled and easier to accept by candlelight.

Excerpt:    “What, brothers, is today’s most fashionable word?  Today’s most fashionable word of all is, of course, ‘electrification’. Lighting up Soviet Russia with light, without doubt, is a matter of massive importance. No one can argue with that. But it does, for the time being, have its downside. I’m not saying, comrades, that it costs too much. It costs money – that’s all. No, I’m saying something different.”

My thoughts:  The story makes a poignant point about the double-edged sword of prosperity and of being made aware of one’s own station.  I really can’t say too much about this story without practically paraphrasing the entire thing here, as it’s simply that brief a tale.  I will say that I found it a thoughtful bit of satire, tinged with melancholy and bitter humor.  I do recommend reading it.  What I find most remarkable is that it was published at all!  It’s quite critical of Soviet-style growth, in a way that I wouldn’t have thought would be tolerated, considering how many satirical works were suppressed during that period.  I had to do a bit of research to sate my curiosity.  It seems that Zoshchenko’s work was not only well-loved by readers in the 1920s and 1930s, but was also tolerated by the state. But by the 1940s he came under suspicion, and his work was targeted as unpatriotic by Stalin.

This from Russiapedia: “Zoshchenko, along with poet Anna Akhmatova, was expelled by special decree [from the Soviet Writers’ Union] and deprived of his ‘worker’s ration card’ – the only way to get food during a time of widespread starvation. Publishers, journals and theaters began cancelling their contracts with Zoshchenko, and demanded he return the advances he was given.”

Despite reinstatement to the Writers’ Union after Stalin’s death, Zoshchenko fell into a deep depression and eventually died.  It seems that after his official censure, he never regained his footing as an author, but a healthy number of his stories survive to this day, and his satirical words still have truths to impart.


Deal Me In 2015: Story #1 – “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu

deal me in smMy first story for the 2015 edition of the Deal Me In challenge, hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis, is E.Lily Yu’s multiple award-nominated story, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”.

(I am trying to settle on a somewhat-standardized format for my story reviews this year, as opposed to simply launching into a ramble with no framework.  I’m hoping it will help me better organize my thoughts. We shall see how it goes.)

My card:  Jack of Diamonds  jack diamonds

Source:  Clarkesworld Magazine, issue 55, April, 2011 (available free online as text and audio)

About the author:  E. Lily Yu is the author of a number of short stories and poems and is credited on the game Destiny, by Bungie.  She is the winner of the 2012 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, among other accolades.

Synopsis:  This is an allegorical tale of the relationships between several different societies:  the wasps – scientists, soldiers, explorers, cartographers; the bees – dancers, homemakers, mathematicians, story-tellers, ; the anarchist bees – a splinter group of egalitarian-minded types; and several groups of humans – the village humans, the officials of the human city, the scientific human community. Several themes are explored – sovereignty, servitude, colonialism, might-makes-right and manifest destiny, tradition, innovation, culture-clash, idealism, rebellion.

Excerpt:    “For longer than anyone could remember, the village of Yiwei had worn, in its orchards and under its eaves, clay-colored globes of paper that hissed and fizzed with wasps. The villagers maintained an uneasy peace with their neighbors for many years, exercising inimitable tact and circumspection. But it all ended the day a boy, digging in the riverbed, found a stone whose balance and weight pleased him. With this, he thought, he could hit a sparrow in flight. There were no sparrows to be seen, but a paper ball hung low and inviting nearby. He considered it for a moment, head cocked, then aimed and threw.

Much later, after he had been plastered and soothed, his mother scalded the fallen nest until the wasps seething in the paper were dead. In this way it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.

The villagers’ subsequent incursions with bee veils and kettles of boiling water soon diminished the prosperous population to a handful. Commanded by a single stubborn foundress, the survivors folded a new nest in the shape of a paper boat, provisioned it with fallen apricots and squash blossoms, and launched themselves onto the river. Browsing cows and children fled the riverbanks as they drifted downstream, piping sea chanteys.

At last, forty miles south from where they had begun, their craft snagged on an upthrust stick and sank. Only one drowned in the evacuation, weighed down with the remains of an apricot. They reconvened upon a stump and looked about themselves.

“It’s a good place to land,” the foundress said in her sweet soprano, examining the first rough maps that the scouts brought back. There were plenty of caterpillars, oaks for ink galls, fruiting brambles, and no signs of other wasps. A colony of bees had hived in a split oak two miles away. “Once we are established we will, of course, send a delegation to collect tribute.“”

My thoughts:  This was exactly the sort of speculative fiction I most love – a story that uses metaphor and allegory to examine real-world issues.  The myth-making here is simply top-notch and should appeal to lovers of both Catherynne M. Valente and Ray Bradbury.  I was particularly impressed at how deeply I felt I was allowed to understand the various cultures through just a few well-chosen words.  Yu makes every word count, truly filling out and coloring the world of her story, yet not over-decorating her sentences with extraneous descriptors.  The writing felt both subtle and complex at once, and I was drawn right in.

I was able to immediately suspend my disbelief and allow myself to believe in the fable-like presentation of anthropomorphized (in ideals, not in body) wasps and bees.  I think this was largely because I felt that the author believed in her world.  She declares it to be real and proceeds without the fluff and whimsy that might have made the story seem fey or twee.  She imbues the wasp and bee societies with such a dark realism that the reader can’t help but believe.  Things become more complex and layered, grimmer, even more real, as the story evolves, leaving me thinking back on it again and again after I had finished reading.

I will definitely be seeking out more of Yu’s work and am especially pleased to read that she’s working on a “magic realist novel about a family of Afghan asylum-seekers in Australia.” (Locus interview)

Deal Me In Challenge, 2015 Edition: Sign-Up and Story Roster

Deal Me In

The Deal Me In challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis was a really rewarding challenge for me in 2014. I was exposed, through my own reading and the posts of others,  dozens and dozens of new-to-me authors and stories I would surely have otherwise missed.  I enjoyed this challenge so much that I’m signing up for the 2015 edition.  In fact, it’s the only yearly challenge I intend to participate in for the year, in keeping with my resolution to relax the constrictions and self-imposed rules on my reading.

Jay has an excellent run-down of the challenge goals in his information and sign-up post, but here’s the gist of the thing:  Make a roster of 52 short stories you would like to read, collected from any sources you like. Assign these stories to the cards in a standard deck of playing cards.  Draw (physically or via online generator) one card per week to read (and optionally review if you are so inspired.) There are several less intense options for reading fewer stories at the sign-up post, as well as suggestions for incorporating other short formats such as essays, speeches or poetry.

I’ll be attempting the full 52-story once-weekly option again.  I’m excited to have a list of new-to-me stories to explore in the coming year.  I’ve gathered a handful of collections of stories from which to assemble my roster:  “Russian Short Stories” from Penguin Classics, “The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories”, “Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan” collected by Lafcadio Hearn and the 2000 edition of “The Best American Short Stories of the Century”, as well as a suit’s worth of stories available freely online.

I will be tracking my progress and linking to any reviews I post on the “DMI 2015” page listed at the top of this blog.

Here are my selections for the year:

Spades – Russian Short Stories:
(Penguin Classics)

A. “The Fatalist” by Mikhail Lermontov
2. “Bobok” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3. “In the Cart” by Anton Chekhov
4. “The Monster” by Lidiya Zinovyeva-Annibal
5. “Love” by Teffi
6. “The Lion” by Yevgeny Zamyatin
7. “Quadraturin” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
8. “Lalla’s Interests” by Vera Inber
9. “The Embroidered Towel” by Mikhail Bulgakov
10. “Salt” by Isaak Babel
J. “Electrification” by Mikhail Zoshchenko
Q. “The Old Woman” by Daniil Kharms
K. “What a Pity” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Hearts – The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories & Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan:
(collected by Lafcadio Hearn, Dover)

A. “The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell (Victorian)
2. “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt” by Charles Dickens (Victorian)
3. “The Captain of the Pole-Star” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Victorian)
4. “The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson (Victorian)
5. “The Open Door” by Charlotte Riddell (Victorian)
6. “The Kit-bag” by Algernon Blackwood (Victorian)
7. “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi” (Kwaidan)
8. “Oshidori” (Kwaidan)
9. “Of a Mirror and a Bell” (Kwaidan)
10. “A Dead Secret” (Kwaidan)
J. “Yuki Onna” (Kwaidan)
Q. “The Story of Aoyagi” (Kwaidan)
K. “The Dream of Akinosuke” (Kwaidan)

Clubs – The Best American Short Stories of the Century:
(ed. by John Updike and Katrina Kenison)

A. “The Other Woman” by Sherwood Anderson
2. “Blood-Burning Moon” by Jean Toomer
3. “That Evening Sun Go Down” by William Faulkner
4. “Here We Are” by Dorothy Parker
5. “Crazy Sunday” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
6. “That in Aleppo Once…” by Vladimir Nabokov
7. “The Interior Castle” by Jean Stafford
8. “The Country Husband” by John Cheever
9. “A City of Churches” by Donald Barthelme
10. “Gesturing” by John Updike
J. “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick
Q. “The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag
K. “You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore

Diamonds – Online Science Fiction by Women:
(online stories from these lists: &

A. “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” by Yoon Ha Lee
2. “A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering
3. “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn
4. “Cuts Both Ways” by Heather Clitheroe
5. “Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire
6. “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard
7. “Love Is the Plan, The Plan is Death” by Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr.
8. “Non-Zero Probabilities” by N. K. Jemisin
9. “Patient Zero” by Tananarive Due
10. “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor
J. “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
Q. “The Case of the Passionless Bees” by Rhonda Eikamp
K. “Timeline” by Elizabeth Bear