The Gambler and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

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For the Love of the Books

1.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”

As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.

There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.

2.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.

Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.

Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.

Which he did. Partly.

But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.

3.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”

I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.

4.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.

When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown

It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.

Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.

Viva Las Vegas: On Getting an MFA in Sin City

The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle”.

“Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!” I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100 percent facetious: I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler. And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker. I think about it often.

The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall, it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake. In Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me.

There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist — or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.

I met my girlfriend in the MFA program, and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean if you want to,” she’d say. Next time, it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce.

They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50 percent chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo.

So we became regulars at the El Cortez — an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers and made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds.

Channeling the ghost of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers), we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker. It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went.

So why do it? As a graduate assistant, I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts. I won’t wade too far into that except to say that though I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can), for me, it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down. In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O’Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt.

Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work. It’s as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill. Then take the long view. I’ll probably need 10 years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on 11.

“Bad beats” — those gambling losses that should have been wins — can always be written-off as research anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor? In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them. Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: It takes money to make money, so the rich get richer.

I prefer craps, where players win or lose together; “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house — that oligarchy upstairs.

In his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.”

He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. Although marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.”

He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in 30 days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Teaching on a campus where 75 percent of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out. A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine.

Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school, so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance.

When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices (well, not overindulging anyway).

I will say this, though: You learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon, which is good. In writing, as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a winning streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more.

The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

October Books: A Reading List for the Month of Harvests and Horror

If you like Fall, you like October. It’s the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. “It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” October at Green Gables is “when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson” and “the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;” it’s a “beautiful month.”

Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, “is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it — each day fills me with terror.” (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez’s biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, “would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury” in his novels.

Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It’s the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein’s monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it’s in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It’s in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it’s in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, “Redrum.”

Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before — just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too.

Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867)
Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart — or heed — from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he’d deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn’t begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare.

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878)
Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, “Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art” in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn’t published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, “I could be martyr’d for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you.”

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904)
James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre.

Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919)
Oddly, one effect of Russia’s October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd — soon renamed Leningrad — as history was made around him.

The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004)
October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn’t anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! How I hate him!”

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let’s hear Metalious tell it: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
It’s a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, “her mouth puckered like an autumn apple.”

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys’s novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, “So it was all over.”

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
“Gentlemen,” New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, “Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books,” the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later.

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975)
The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell’s grand shooting party, which means that it’s also the day on which Danny and his “marvelous and exciting father” conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob’s plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979)
There’s no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge’s wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis.

“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer (2002)
Packer’s short story uses 1995’s Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon — “nerdy ol’ Spurgeon” — who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition.

Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004)
On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin’-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk’s little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The landscape McCarthy’s father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won’t last another winter without finding their way south.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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