Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ebony Hand by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is a local author whose work I came across when I was researching the county of Norfolk, where I have lived for the past two and a half years. I have never been drawn to her work before, when working in the bookshop, but was at a loss of short stories for my challenge and this, part of The Darkness of Wallis Simpson collection, seemed appropriate.

Set in the 1950s, still in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Ebony Hand is the story of a spinster living a contented quiet existence in a small Norfolk village. She works part-time in a haberdashery shop, a quiet job that she loves, and becomes enamoured with an ebony glove hand on the counter, that she polishes and dresses with loving care. After the death of her sister from influenza, her brother-in-law checks himself into the local mental asylum; leaving their thirteen-year-old daughter, Nicolina, with no family.to take care of her. Our protagonist takes the girl in and raises her, despite knowing little about raising children, and finds her peaceful life shattered. Determined to find a good husband for Nicolina, she settles upon Paul Swinton, a good hardworking young man devoted to her niece, but she is thwarted by teenage emotions.

My favourite passage concerned Nicolina’s father, a tragic figure in his madness, fixating on the bull in the field opposite the asylum and attempting to hatch eggs on his windowsill.

“Victor was given a small room with orange curtains and a view of some water-meadows where an old grey-white bull foraged for grass among kingcups and reeds. Victor said the bull and he were ‘as one’ in their abandonment and loneliness. He said Aviva had held his mind together by cradling his head between her breasts. He announced that the minds of every living being on the earth were held together by a single mortal and precarious thing.”

Another passage perfectly describes how someone can pin their hopes on something unusual and inanimate as this ebony hand.

“When Victor said what he said about our minds being held together by peculiar things, I thought to myself that the peculiar thing, in my personal case, was this wooden hand. It was well made and heavy and smooth. I polished it with Min cream once a week. I enjoyed the way it had never aged or altered. And I began to think that this hand was like the kind of man I had to find for Nicolina: somebody who would not change or die.”

The Ebony Hand has a gentleness to it, a sweet tragedy to its main character. All her time and effort is spent on this young girl who disappoints her, but to whom she remains loyal, the faithful aunt and protector. She focuses all her hopes on this inanimate object, the ebony hand, only to have the haberdashery close and the hand sold and lost beyond her reach. It is a fragile tale, of love, loss and longing. As someone relatively new to the world of short stories, I found it charming and bittersweet.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

"Magic, madam, is
like wine and,
if you are not used
to it, it will make
you drunk."

Those of you who have read my blog in the past may have realised that I have fallen head over heels in love with Susanna Clarke's writing. I did not cope well with Dickens at school and to this day have never finished any of his novels. Then I discover Ms Clarke, who writes like a modern day Dickens, and her fabulous book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A mysterious journey through the Napoleonic era, following the rivalry of two magicians, and their effect on the fate of English magic. Now one of my favourite novels, and reviewed here, it left me wanting more.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories set in the same world as magic and faery as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There are eight stories, each written in the same delectable style, and each delving into a different faery story.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is perhaps the story most reminiscent of Clarke's first novel, introducing us to a trio of female magicians and their struggle to get accepted by their male counterparts. Jonathan Strange himself makes an appearance in this glorious tale of magic, superstition and vengeful owls.

On Lickerish Hill is the tale of a sly woman who sells her daughter to a nobleman, under the proviso that in the last month of the first year of their marriage, she must spin five skeins of flax every day. The young woman, as cunning as her mother, devises a way to fulfill her husbands demands, by making a deal with a fairy. All she has to do, is discover his name, or her life will be his.

Mrs Mabb is the sad tale of a young woman who loses her love to the mysterious Mrs Mabb. Only her determination can rescue her love.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse is an amusing story, set in Gaiman's fictional village of Wall. There in The Seventh Magpie Inn, the Duke of Wellington quarrels with a local villager over a pair of embroidery scissors and is later forced to cross the Wall to retrieve his stallion, released in spite by the angry man. There he discovers a small house where a young woman is embroidering some beautiful images of the Duke's past and possible future. When faced with his own death in gloriously coloured thread, the Duke must take matters into his own hand.

Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower, is a series of extracts from the diary of a young Italian man, who takes a position as cleric in a small town, where he has hopes over marrying well and creating a good home for himself. There he encounters a Fairy Widower, only to learn and discover more about his heritage and future destiny.

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby is the tale of a young Jewish doctor and his fairy friend, travelling to visit a sick patient, when they come upon the poor begotten village of Thoresby. Tom is persuaded to build a fairy bridge across the river with unforeseen results.

Antickes and Frets is the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots, thrown into prison by her cousin, Elizabeth, and who ends up in the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his ambitious wife. She soon begins to suspect that the Countess had gotten where she was through dark means in her embroidery. Mary endeavours to use the same means to get rid of her cousin and thus usurp the throne of England.

The final story, John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner, is an amusing tale of a Charcoal Burner (and his pig Blakeman!), whose life is rudely interrupted by the Raven King himself, and who enlists Saints to have his revenge on Uskglass.

Clarke's style is perfect for me. She manages to write about a world so unusual and unfamiliar to us, yet makes it so evocative and believeable that I for one, got completely sucked in. Her writing is a sheer delight to read, and I found myself having to take breaks after each short story, just as I would with a great novel, in order to really digest and enjoy the experience. My fear was that the next story would never be as good, but each was as good as the last.

A fabulous collection by a wonderful author. I cannot recommend these stories enough, and dearly hope that Susanna Clarke writes more very soon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Murder in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes


"Eleven times over, the stories written especially for this premier volume by some of the finest talents at work in crime fiction today -- Anne Perry, Loren D. Estleman, Gillian Linscott, Edward D. Hoch, Peter Tremayne, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Jon L. Breen, Bill Crider, Howard Engel, Carolyn Wheat, and L. B. Greenwood -- celebrate the keen mind, ratiocinative methods, personal eccentricities, and singular manners that epitomize the most admired fictional sleuth of all time: Sherlock Holmes.

More than a century has passed since Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the reading public, but no literary detective has yet to match the Great Detective in popularity and to command the esteem of such legions of fans -- not least among them the mystery writers who pay tribute to him in this collection. Ingeniously contrived and shrewdly executed, their tales revisit the comfortable clutter of the rooms at 221B Baker Street where Holmes in an old silk dressing gown, his gaze piercing and his fingers stained with chemicals or ink, again peruses a telling trifle or perhaps takes up his violin.

Again, too, the inscrutable Holmes and his redoubtable companion, Dr. Watson, display at their peerless best the science and arts of detection -- whether they are investigating a crime in the wilds of Africa or uncovering villainy in the heart of London, whether it's the case of the bloodless sock or borderline dandelions, a remarkable worm or a vampire's mark" -- from the inside flap

Introduction • Daniel Stashower
• The Man from Capetown • Stuart M. Kaminsky
• The Case of the Borderland Dandelions • Howard Engel
• The Siren of Sennen Cove • Peter Tremayne
• The Case of the Bloodless Sock • Anne Perry
• The Case of the Anonymous Author • Edward D. Hoch
• The Case of the Vampire’s Mark • Bill Crider
• The Hansom for Mr. Holmes • Gillian Linscott
• The Adventure of the Arabian Knight • Loren D. Estelman
• The Adventure of the Cheshire Cheese • Jon L. Breen
• Darkest Gold • L. B. Greenwood
• The Remarkable Worm • Carolyn Wheat
Sidelights on Sherlock Holmes • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
• 100 Years of Sherlock Holmes • Lloyd Rose
• And Now, a Word from Arthur Conan Doyle • Jon L. Lellenberg

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, especially the ones "The Siren of Sennen Cove" and "A Hansom for Mr. Holmes". I also liked the essay "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes" which looked at how the Holmes character has been portrayed over the years on stage and film.

Date read: 10/30/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
(SS) Yearly count: 5/5

Monday, December 1, 2008

Challenge Completed

I finished this challenge, 5 short story collections completed!
My Reads:
Skin, Roald Dahl
The Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt
Fragile Things, Gaiman
Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert Etty
A Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler

My favorite was definately Fragile Things, I love Gaiman so that wasn't unexpected, coming a close seconf was A Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of very simply told stories about Vietnamese citizens who moved to America as a result of the war.

I hadn't read many short stories till this challenge, now I seem to be reading a lot more of them in snatches.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stories by Vladimir Nabokov

In his stories, Vladimir Nabokov so perfectly captures a character, or a setting, or an emotion, that I feel that the character is real, the setting surrounds me, and the emotion is my own.

His writing in these stories is so well done that I, a very amateur writer, feel the urge to try my hand at capturing the images around me, a task I will surely fail because I know I will never even remotely measure up to Nabokov’s incredible talent.

The unfortunate aspect of reading more than 60 of Nabokov’s short stories in one month is that the characters he so adroitly creates, the settings he so carefully draws, and the feelings he so perfectly captures are, for the most part, miserable, gloomy, and ultimately depressing. Also, some of his stories have fantastical elements that failed to resonate with me, and most dwell on negative aspects of human nature - subjects that weren’t pleasant for reading in bulk.

But I feel that the overall quality of Vladimir Nabokov’s writing is so extraordinary that he should be read simply for the marvelous experience that comes from reading his words, even if the reader doesn’t necessarily consider the negative underlying themes amazing.

Nabokov’s stories tend to be rather sad. My two favorite stories happened to be the least unpleasant. A number of other stories have also stayed with me.

Two Stories

In “First Love,” a man reflects on his first love. In the course of his description of a childhood summer’s events, it’s unclear to the reader whether his first love was traveling by overnight train; swimming at the beach; learning about butterflies; or meeting the little French girl, Colette. This story doesn’t have much plot or grand finale, but it is a beautiful story that I’ve already reread three times.

In “The Vane Sisters” story, a man reflects on his relationships with two sisters, one of whom was once his girlfriend. It also is incredibly subtle. (Highlight to read spoiler.) Nabokov’s subtle ending tells us that this man’s life really hasn’t been all that affected by the life and then the death of these sisters. It’s kind of depressing for the sisters, but an interesting realization for the man. It made me think about my own life and relationships. What impact do certain people have on me? For example, how often do I think about old boyfriends? Did they really impact my life significantly?

Other Stories

While I can only see myself rereading those two stories, there are a number of other stories that I keep remembering, even after starting the next story. Note that I do think Nabokov’s writing improved through the years; if you read the 60+ story volume as I did, start in the middle or go backward.

Here are some that stayed with me, with short introductions.

  • That in Aleppo Once…” His wife never existed, he’s sure of it.
  • A Forgotten Poet.” A dead poet arrives at the banquet held in his honor.
  • A Guide to Berlin.” One man recounts the small details of Berlin.
  • Music.” At a recital, a man sees his ex-wife across the room.
  • Perfection.” A very proper tutor is asked to take his young charge to the sea shore.
  • The Visit to the Museum.” A man goes to a museum to acquire a painting for a friend - and gets lost inside.
  • An Affair of Honor.” A man finds that his wife is having an affair with his friend, an ex-cavalry man, and he must fight a duel to save his good honor.
  • A Slice of Life.” The woman once loved him; now that his wife has left him, he has come to her to get drunk and commiserate.
  • The Dragon.” A dragon awakes after his ten-century slumber.
  • The Fight.” The elderly man he sees at the beach is also the bartender; he observes one night’s bar fight.
  • The Potato Elf.” A small dwarf in the circus seeks love.
  • Terra Incognita.” A group of bug collectors in the tropics get sick, lost, and angry at one another, as told from the perspective of the ill, delirious man.
  • The Reunion.” Two brothers, one living in Russia and one an émigré in Germany, meet after ten years.
  • Breaking the News.” The elderly, deaf woman’s son has died, and no one wants to tell her.
  • Cloud, Castle, Lake.” A man is forced into his first vacation, and he’s hoping that he’ll find the elusive happiness he seeks.
  • The Thunderstorm.” A man awakens in a storm to see Elijah dropping his mantle for Elisha.
I highly recommend reading at least one or two stories by Nabokov. His writing is amazing!

Cross-posted, with more detailed thoughts on his writing, at Rebecca Reads

The Gift Of Years

He decided at one point that if what he thought was, in fact, true, he would forgive her --- it would remain their secret. He made up his mind that relieving himself of the curiosity was all that mattered and kept this firmly in mind when he approached her to ask the question outright.
But then always a certain laziness would set in, for by now he had conceived of the right words, only his mouth could not utter them; at once anxious and weary, he realized it was not curiosity that wanted relief, it was the uncertainty of his disappointment. The laziness was just one symptom of fear, for though he would remind himself to try, the threat of an answer, of a finality terrific in its inevitability, made the uncertainty and self-denial already there a pain he preferred to bear, only so the alternative could never hurt him more --- which was why the question could not come, and would not come. And then he would remember all those moments in her life when she revealed her strange nature to him and him alone, those aberrations of the person she normally was and, he wanted to believe, had always been... . He would remember these images, hold them fast to his chest, then convince himself that meaning and connections conceived in memory were flimsy bridges and that to corrupt a good memory would be to corrupt them all. And so, selfishly, not because his suspicion might have been wrong but because it could have yielded the truth, he never asked her.

The Gift of Years by Vu Tran is a short story about Nguyen Van Lam and his youngest daughter Nguyen Tram-Mai. Lam is a husband and father of five. He has done his time in the army, been good to his wife and kids, and lived a fairly respectful life. Lam shares a special relationship with his youngest child Mai. Throughout the years he has watched his daughter with much concern in her reaction to violence, fighting, killing and death. He observed a pattern of interest and indifference through questions and actions during much of her youth and teen years. Also, Mai has always confided in her father about the events and details of her actions that she doesn't ordinarily share with others, even into her adult life. When Mai's husband is found dead after a night of usual drunkenness, Lam is too afraid to ask about and discover the truth behind this tragic event. But he knows that some day she will share this secret with him as well. Throughout the short story, Lam recalls his memories of Mai over the years. And in the end, prior to Lam's death, Mai shares one more event with her father that leads to a revelation that even he had never suspected.

The Gift of Years is a story that comes full circle in its presentation through an ending that is not expected. It shows how observations and memories over time are not always what they seem to be. I very much enjoyed this short story.

"The Gift of Years" by Vu Tran (from Fence) from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Irish Girls About Town: Anthology of Short Stories

Irish Girls About Town (2002)
Anthology of Short Stories, 310 pages
This edition: Simon & Schuster, Inc. for Barnes & Noble (2006)

As with the U.K. and Irish edition, Barnardo's and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul will benefit from the sale of this edition of Irish Girls About Town.

Another review that has been languishing on my desk since October. Ay yi yi.

No sooner did I recuperate from the Read-A-Thon, than I began preparing, and then became immersed in, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). As a first time participant, I had no idea what I was getting myself into - and yes, that would be par for the course.

I had decided early in the marathon, that short stories were the way to go, and so I read Interpreter of Maladies , this book, and a little bit of The Book of Lost Things.

I flew through this book of 15 stories, all written by Irish women. The theme throughout is that of relationships, ranging from familial to marriage, and even though there is a single theme, there are enough variations of it to make it easy to read and just as easy to enjoy.

My personal favorites were "Soulmates" by Marian Keyes, "The Twenty-Eighth Day" by Catherine Barry, and "Thelma, Louise and the Lurve Gods" by Cathy Kelly. Don't get me wrong though, there is not a bad story in the bunch, it's just that I felt compelled to list the ones that stick out in my mind the most.

"Soulmates" is an interesting tale about two 'perfect' people fated to meet and be together because they are, yes, soulmates. Everything is just right when it comes to these two: their meeting, their courtship, and subsequent marriage. But when trouble looms on the horizon, their friends harbor a secret hope that all will unravel, and do so badly. I will leave it for you to read the story to find out what happens.

"The Twenty-Eighth Day" is for anyone who has suffered through PMS – and I just don't mean the woman:
I am being tormented and tortured by some unknown force I cannot touch or feel. It's like somebody else has taken over my body, mind, and soul. There is a demon spirit inside me, telling me to do inappropriate things, prompting me to say hurtful, offensive words, urging me to be the meanest b---- that ever walked the earth.
"Thelma, Louise and the Lurve Gods" initially appears to be a story about a woman who needs a vacation from her boring life, to experience something more exciting than "not having a Chinese takeaway on Friday nights but…shock, horror…having pizza instead." No sooner does the vacation begin than a snag threatens to destroy all her hopes. However she eventually learns that the trip she is on is one of self-discovery, for as she notes, "Although my own world had shifted on its axis after the holiday, in the office nothing had changed." Things around her remained the same, it was she who had changed - who needed to change - so she could see those things, and herself, more clearly.

I am giving this book a 5 star rating as per my system that states a book earns this because I could not put it down. And I couldn't.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne

To my delight, many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories perfectly fit the “gothic” theme of Halloween in a style that I loved. Even though I dislike being “scared,” these stories were again the perfect amount of creepy for me.

One of Hawthorne’s collections of stories is called Twice-Told Tales. As I read, I began to understand why: while many stories are on the surface about Puritans in the early days of America, they aren’t really about Puritans. Hawthorne is telling us a different story. (Links below are to the stories in the public domain.)

For example, in Hawthorne’s probably most well-known story, “Young Goodman Brown,” the titular character is invited by the devil to practice witchcraft one night. To his surprise, the people he sees with the devil are his own religious teachers and leaders. But what we read is only a part of the story. The “tale” is told again when we realize the symbolism: even those striving to lead are hypocrites full of error.

Other stories likewise have a “ghostly,” Halloween-ish feel to them. For example, in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the woman is literally poisonous. In “The Snow-Image,” two children make a snow person come alive; I loved this “Frosty the Snowman” precursor. Similarly, in “Feathertop,” a witch brings her scarecrow to life. In”Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” a woman’s coat becomes the carrier of a plague of sorts. In “Ethan Brand,” the titular character has sold his soul to the devil. I think these would be perfect for a ghostly but not scary Halloween read! I think “Feathertop” and “The Snow-Image” would also be appropriate for children.

While not all of Hawthorne’s stories are gothic, all of them have subtle meanings. Some people may not like Hawthorne’s blatant messages in his stories, but I thought his stories were also entertaining stories.

Probably my favorite non-ghostly story is “The Great Stone Face.” In this story, a small rural community is looking for the fulfillment of the legend: a person whose countenance appears the same as the face on the local hillside. This person will bring honor to the community. Over the course of a lifetime, they find the image of the stone face in a rich entrepreneur, a war hero, and a poet, all of whom end up failing the community. I loved the message of this story: that we can make a difference to others without doing something grand, and humility is always better than pride.

Further, in “The Birth-mark,”a husband wants his wonderful wife to undergo his experimental surgery to remove a birthmark from her face that he thinks is the hand print of the devil; but it’s not the hand of devil. A young man enters Boston in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” looking for his relative to help him get started in the world; but his relative doesn’t have time for him. In “The Great Carbuncle” a group of people are searching for a huge, precious jewel, each for their own reasons — to their ultimate downfall. Finally, in “The Wives of the Dead,” two sisters find out on the same day that their husbands have died. I won’t tell you what happens, but it is “touching” in the end.

There were other, well-known stories that I read and didn’t like very much. I think I disliked the slow pace and the lack of engagement I felt with any particular character.

In the end, Hawthorne has a style of his own. He is almost a favorite for me, after Maupassant and Chekhov.

Cross-posted here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Stories by Flannery O'Connor

To understand Flannery O’Connor’s short stories is understand the rural South that she was familiar with in the pre-1970s. Her stories focus on aspects character in human, every-day situations all revolving around her South, dealing with race relations, Christianity, rural versus city living, parent-child relationships, etc. She brings the reader into the settings by capturing thought processes, a style I found engaging. I enjoyed reading her stories, although they illustrated a lack of hope in human nature.


Race and Class

I found the most common theme in Flannery O’Connor’s stories is race and class, looking at conflict between generations. A great example is “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” In this story, a progressive young man must ride the bus with his older mother to the YMCA because she is “afraid” of the blacks on the integrated buses. He wants to teach her a lesson, but in the end he realizes he still needs his mother, as “old-fashioned” as she is.

Race and class often mix in O’Connor’s stories. In “Revelation,” a self-satisfied judgmental woman is baffled when a young girl calls her a rude name; in the end, she (maybe) realizes the folly of her judgments.

Other stories clearly dealing with race and class also include rural versus city conflicts. Some of these stories are “The Artificial Nigger” (a father and son visit Atlanta); “The Displaced Person” (a Jewish refugee family joins the farm); “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” (Grandpa fought in the civil war); and “The Geranium” and “Judgment Day” (an old man, living in New York City with his daughter, longs to return to the South to die; these are essentially the same story, one written at the beginning and one at the end of O’Connor’s career).

Isolated, Lonely People

Some of my favorite stories were about lonely, isolated individuals seeking for a place. In “The Crop,” a lonely woman sits down to write a short story-and forgets where she is. I love this story because I can relate to this writer: she can’t figure out how to get the story from her head to paper. In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” the woman ponders a fortune teller’s message, and the reader, following her thoughts, knows what it is. I loved how clueless she was as I followed her thought process.

While others weren’t favorites, they were also about lonely, isolated people: “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” (14-year-old must bury his grandfather); “Good Country People” (a lonely girl with a wooden leg finally trusts someone, the good country man selling bibles); “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (mother gets her mute daughter married to a nice, good country man); “A View of the Woods” (a lonely, selfish grandfather idolizes his granddaughter); and “The Enduring Chill” (a lonely, unsuccessful writer returns to Georgia to die).

Christianity (Good versus Evil)

Flannery O’Connor’s stories also deal with Christianity and good versus evil in general. Her view of good and evil in the face of Christianity is intriguing.

A Good Man is Hard to Find” is probably the most familiar O’Connor story, but I really don’t like it. Grandma gets her family lost on a side road. They meet a murderer, who Grandma is sure she recognizes as a good man. I think it’s a look at how everyone has good, and yet, we’re all missing good too; we’re all condemned. I find it a bit disturbing.

In other stories, people try to save each other through religion and because of religious training. In “The River,” the boy’s caretaker, Mrs. Conin, wants to “save” him with religion. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker gets one more tattoo that he thinks his religious wife will appreciate. In “The Comforts of Home,” Thomas’s mother thinks she can save a loose woman from corruption. In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Sheppard thinks he can redeem a criminal boy who shows more promise than his own son.

I sometimes didn’t like the violent shock at the end of each story: but that may be because I was reading all of her short stories in the same week. If you read Flannery O’Connor, read her in installments.

In the end, Flannery O’Connor certainly has a marvelous but morbid story telling ability.

Cross-posted in longer form here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Stories by Washington Irving

Washington Irving’s ghost stories are just my type of ghost story: they’re tricky and creepy, but full of twists. Irving’s twists are rather predictable, but I found that even with Irving’s long-winded, wordy, early-1800s prose made his stories delightful to read.

In the introduction to my 1960’s book, Washington Irving is called the “Father of American Literature” and the “First American Man of Letters.” While I don’t know enough about his contemporaries to know if that’s accurate, I do know that many of his stories have a distinct American feel to them, as the setting is clearly the “new world.” The rustic and spacious American setting feels refreshing when I approach Irving’s writing; it’s as if that rural Connecticut community still exists. It also seems Irving’s world has seeped down into our modern culture: how many American communities today have a Sleepy Hollow street, neighborhood, or town somewhere near?

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” probably Irving’s most well-known story, illustrates a quaint, rural, new American community. Sleepy Hollow is “sleepy,” but it does have one claim to fame: the local haunt, the headless horseman. In the story, scrawny Ichabod Crane and burly Brom Bones vie for the attentions of the local beauty, and the headless horseman visits Ichabod Crane late one night. As I said, Irving’s story is predictable, but I still enjoyed it.

“Rip Van Winkle” occurs in a similar community. Rip Van Winkle is a good-for-nothing married to a nagging woman. One night, he meets some gnomes in the wood, who offer him alcoholic refreshment. When he wakes up the next morning, something isn’t quite right. Again, this is a somewhat predictable story, but I still enjoyed it, odd as it was.

“The Specter Bridegroom,” on the other hand, takes place in a castle in Germany, where a bride is awaiting her groom for their wedding. Though he arrives in time, he insists on leaving before the wedding, for he has a date with the grave. I was annoyed with Irving for giving up the ending a few pages too soon; I suspect it would never have been published that way today, and I thought it could have used some reorganization. That said, I still enjoyed the amusing story.

“The Adventure of the German Student” also occured in Europe, this time in creepy Revolutionary Paris, a place with ghosts, apparently.

“The Devil and Tom Walker” returns to the New England setting. This time, another good-for-nothing man married to another nagging wife (seems to be a theme in Irving) happens upon the Devil in the wood and strikes a bargain with him. Lest you might be thinking of doing the same thing, you should read this warning-story! Tom’s ultimate end is quite amusing.

I did read a few other stories, but these were the most entertaining. Irving’s style is not for everyone: as I said before, he is very wordy and tends to detail everything. I liked that, but you might not.

These stories happened to be Irving’s most “gothic.” I don’t normally like ghost stories, but these were just to my liking: a somewhat real feel to them, and yet also a somewhat “fantastic” story behind them.

Cross-posted here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Months and Seasons - Wendy's Book Review

These were adults with too much time on their hands. And didn’t they know that the projector, sound system, and speakers were all Japanese? Their dancing shoes were probably from Mexico or China. America’s jobs were going elsewhere and Americans were just dressing up and playing like kids. Gas prices were high. General Motors was going broke and laying off thousands - and these people were dancing. -From Months and Seasons, Dracula Slinks Into the Night, page 14-

Christopher Meeks stories are full of people who push through the obstacles of life and overcome their deepest fears in order to find joy in living. Months and Seasons, Meeks second collection of short stories is a delightful book which introduces the reader to characters who are ordinary, but in their ordinariness remind us of the common threads which bind people together.

In the story Catalina, we meet a man who is traveling to Catalina via a catamaran. He is grieving the loss of his son.

For the full hour-ride, Daunus sat outside, looking rearward into the gray wake. At one point, a white baseball cap landed in the wake. Someone lost it. His chest felt constricted. Breathing was hard. he’d given this country everything, including now his son. -From Months and Seasons, Catalina, page 37-

He meets a woman on the boat who optimistically tells him that Catalina is ‘like a persimmon - unexpected fruit on a naked tree.‘ The man’s discovery that there is still beauty in the world, despite his devastating loss, allows him to go forward into his life. This simple story is an example of the hope which Meeks infuses into all of his stories as his characters confront their fears of aging, mortality and the sometimes insurmountable challenges of relationships.

In some stories, the characters must battle their own inner demons to make sense of the world and their place within it. In A Shoe Falls, Max must evaluate his marriage to Alice - a woman who clutters the house with her shoes. He wakes from a dream about owing a cab driver $150,000 and thinks:

…if the ride was getting so expensive and monotonous, why hadn’t he asked the cab driver to let him off? Why hadn’t he done more than sit there, bouncing in the back seat pondering his sanity? He was a passive man, goddamn it. -From Months and Seasons, A Shoe Falls, page 72-

Max’s inner journey in this story looks at how one man (who could be any of us) examines his “dreams” in the face of his reality. Will he be able to overcome regret for what he has does not have in order to accept what is?

My favorite story of the collection is Breaking Water - which opens with a supermodel awakening from open heart surgery. Merrill appears to have lost everything of importance in her life - her career as a model, her marriage, and her vision of who she is. She must begin again and turns toward art school as a possible answer.

She also couldn’t draw knees well, or a cat’s mysterious stare, or the hope she had had on her wedding day at the Unitarian Church where the minister’s smile had stretched exactly from pupil to pupil - proportions as perfect as Michelangelo. Merrill, however, could draw losing. It was a mere scratch through a face or a line down the middle of one’s chest. -From Months and Seasons, Breaking Water, page 136-

Merrill’s story is one of falling down and getting back up again; of finding hope in the midst of despair. It touched me.

And this is perhaps the strength of the collection - in showing us the lives of these ordinary characters, Meeks exposes what is human in all of us. Who has never felt life was not living up to expectation? Or looked at the years unraveling and wondered if we had the time to do everything we wanted? Or experienced a loss so big that hope seemed irretrievable? Or found our fears so encompassing we felt paralyzed to overcome them? Meeks explores these ideas with humor and sensitivity, and creates a collection hard to put down.

For those readers who love short stories, Months and Seasons is a must read. Highly recommended.

Meeks’ is also the author of a previous collection - The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea.

At the end of Months and Seasons, Meeks includes an excerpt of a new book he is working on…a novel-in-stories titled The Brightest Moon of the Century. I read this excerpt and was hungry for more. Meeks characterization of the title character, Edward, reminded me of John Irving’s Garp. I have added The Brightest Moon of the Century to my watch list!

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Riding upon the wind’s back in the warmth of an eleven o’clock sun, a part-time photographer makes his way through the streets of Paris to snap, forever in time, the winsome activities of ordinary life.

“In all ways when one is walking about with a camera, one has almost a duty to be attentive, to not lose that abrupt and happy rebound of the sun’s rays off an old stone, or the pigtails-flying run of a small girl going home with a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk.”
- From "Blow-Up"

Taking a break from snapping photographs, Roberto Michel raises a match to light his cigarette when the sight of a mismatched couple grabs his attention - a teenage boy with a woman many years his senior. Michel begins to conjecture as to how this couple came to be – a physical woman with a subdued and nervous boy.

“Now the woman had swung around smoothly, putting the young boy between herself and the wall, I saw them almost in profile, and he was taller, though not much taller, and yet she dominated him, it seemed like she was hovering over him, crushing him just by being there, smiling…”
- From "Blow-Up"

He snaps a photograph to capture this peculiar sight, burning a moment of time into his memory that will torment his thoughts as it lingers within his mind. What is it that this picture reveals?

Blow-Up, by Julio Cortázar, is a beautiful, stream-of-consciousness story that embodies the surrealist ideas of embracing the true flow of thought and evoking confusion through unusual juxtaposition. This story could be framed in a museum for its natural beauty – right next to the melting clock’s of Salvador Dalí’s painting, A Persistence of Memory, for they both illustrate how memories can litter the landscape of one’s mind.

If one is looking for a an easy to read story, I suggest, perhaps, "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket," by Yasunari Kawabata, for that story is sparse in text. However, if one enjoys to dive head first into a lake of words, this is the story is for you –the current may push you around but the water feels great. O'CH

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1999
A Collection of Short Stories, 198 pages
Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company

Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s first book, is a collection of short stories depicting the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants. Some may immediately wonder how they could relate to the stories or characters. You may not to them individually, but what you will find is that the themes are universal thus eliminating such a concern.

“A Temporary Matter” centers on a couple estranged by the loss of a child:

But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts in avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible.
“Sexy” about a woman having an affair with a married man and coming to terms with the choices she’s made:
There was no reason to put it on. Apart from the fitting room at Filene’s she had never worn it, and as long as she was with Dev she knew she never would. She knew they would never go to restaurants, where he would reach across a table and kiss her hand. They would meet in her apartment, on Sundays, he in his sweatpants, she in her jeans.
“Mrs. Sen’s” showing the hardships faced emotionally by someone having to adjust to a new life. One in a country where there is little to connect to on any level as there is no immediate family or a community of those with similar backgrounds to lean upon for support, thus the homesickness felt is as much as any one person can bear:
Mrs. Sen took the aerogram from India out of her purse and studied the front and back. She unfolded it and reread it to herself, sighing every now and then. When she had finished she gazed for some time at the swimmers.

“My sister has had a baby girl. By the time I see her, depending if Mr. Sen gets his tenure, she will be three years old. Her own aunt will be a stranger. If we sit side by side on train she will not know my face.”
There are nine stories in total and in each one there was always some aspect that touched me in some way that I could not picture myself, or anyone I know, caught up within those same circumstances and possibly having the same responses. I can say in truth, that I did not understand every nuance in some of the stories, as understanding the culture would have been helpful. But really, it does not detract from the enjoyment I had in reading this book. In fact, it was the first one I completed when participating in the recent Read-A-Thon.

As I stated in an earlier post, this book has got to be one of the better Pulitzer Prize Winners I have read in some time. In addition, I have not read many Short Story collections this year even though I had planned to.

I am glad I decided that this should change. This was a wonderful book and will be a nice addition to my personal library.

For this reason I am giving it a definite ‘must read’ recommendation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wendy's Challenge Plan and List

January 1 - December 31, 2008

UPDATE October 22, 2008:

I am happy to report I have completed this challenge! I read 8 individual short stories (2 more than my goal) and 3 collections of short stories. What a fun challenge this turned out to be. Thank you, Kate for hosting!


Could you resist this button? Come on, be honest. You couldn't. And neither could I...that, and I love the art of the short story.Kate at Kate's Book Blog (and A Curious Singularity) has come up with the 2008 Short Story Challenge. And she's made it flexible and individualized...AND she's given it its own blog. So there you go. I'm in.

I've chosen option #5 - the custom option. And here is my plan:

I. Read six (6) individual short stories by authors I have not read before and which I will choose as I go along.
  1. Black Ice, by Cate Kennedy (finished January 21, 2008; rated 3.5/5; read my review)
  2. The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol (finished March 1, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  3. Landscape With Flatiron, by Haruki Murakami (finished April 21, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  4. The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov (finished May 14, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)
  5. Free Radicals, by Alice Munro (finished May 25, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  6. Mr. Bones, by Paul Theroux (finished June 28, 2008; rated 3.5/5; read my review)
  7. Natalie, by Anne Enright (finished July 26, 2008; rated 2.5/5; read my review)
  8. An Ex-Mas Feast, by Uwem Akpan (finished August 24, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)
II. Read a minimum of three (3) collections chosen from these books:
  1. Springtime on Mars, by Susan Woodring (finished June 28, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)
  2. The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro (finished September 26, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  3. Months and Seasons, by Christopher Meeks (finished October 22, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)
  4. Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner, by William Faulkner
  5. The Country of Pointed Firs and Selected Short Fiction, by Sarah Orne Jewett (let it be noted that I have already read The Country of Pointed Firs and won't re-read it, but all the other stories in this collection are up for grabs)
  6. Open Secrets, by Alice Munro
  7. Tooth and Claw, by T.C. Boyle
  8. A Private State, by Charlotte Bacon
  9. Friend of My Youth, by Alice Munro
  10. All Aunt Hager's Children, by Edward P. Jones

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket"

The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket is a short story that begins with an unknown narrator who discovers a cluster of children with colorful lanterns on an insect hunt in the surrounding trees of a university.
“There were about twenty lanterns. Not only were there crimson, pink, indigo, green, purple, and yellow lanterns, but one lantern glowed with five colors at once”.
As he continues to watch the narrator goes in and out of his imagination and reality to complete the scene. At the end the narrator witnesses a special moment among the children they will never know occurred but because he is observing from the outside, he is privileged to experience it.
What I admire most about Kawabata is that he is able to convey such a deep message through two pages of simple words. I would have to agree with Edmund Yeo’s thoughts from the Swifty, Writing blog when he states that Kawabata has a “fine eye for detail: he has an impressionist’s command of light and color paired with a modernist’s appreciation for the strange…” For example, the narrator begins to describe how the lanterns are made it is clear that he is not there and has no idea if that’s how they were made yet he creates this fairytale image of color and joy.
“The bobbing lanterns, the coming together of children on this lonely slope—surely it was a scene from a fairytale?”
It is strange that the narrator is forcing himself to believe he was there, however, at the same time what the narrator imagines is beautiful and believable even to the reader. The message of youth and childhood is present in the story through the images of play and color, and the overall pure tone of Kawabata. Reading this story is similar to looking at a child’s crayon drawing, at first it’s nothing significant but under the scribbles and overlapping colors there is something more. Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit” and that is something I find true through this tale.


Monday, October 20, 2008



The story that I choose to write about is Canaries because it has some distinct memories or passages that have remained with me from the reading. First of all, the story was written in 1924 by Yasunari Kawabata. Major characters are the author and Madam. Minor characters are the writer’s dead wife and the canaries. The story was taken place at the author’s house. It was a letter that the author sent to his mistress. He said that he could no longer keep the canaries he received from the mistress because his wife was dead. His wife was the only one who took care of those birds. He used to think of the mistress whenever he saw those birds. However, since his wife died, he did not want to keep them. He wanted the memories between him and Madam to die with his wife. I think the writer had felt an internal guilt toward his wife because he was cheating on her. Moreover, the author chose to write this letter because of his guilt. That guilt tormented his heart so that he wanted to kill the canaries and bury them in his wife’s grave. The passage that affected me was “Perhaps it’s odd to give living creatures as a souvenir, but our memories, too, are alive. Someday the canaries will die. And, when the time comes, that the memories between us must die, let them die” I think that after his wife died, the writer finally realized what a real love he used to have with her. Since she died, everything died.


The Fly


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pa's Darling

As I have already suggested, I was always supposed to be Pa's favorite daughter. He made a good deal of me, particularly before company; he like to show me off --- he was proud of my good looks, of what he called my "pale-faced, raven-haired beauty." But he was like a financial magnate showing off a master painting he has just acquired, inwardly confident that the owner of the picture is superior to both the work and its artist. There was always a distinct vein of sarcasm in his ebullient mirth.

Louis Auchincloss' short story Pa's Darling tells Kate Hemenway's view of her past, "to make a probably vain attempt to get it off my chest." She speaks of the way her father treated life, the arts, his wife, and people in general. She then speaks of her first husband of whom she met through her father and then of her second husband whom she discovers is much like her own father. She draws parallels between these men in her life and compares them to the relationship she saw between her own parents. And following the death of her father, Kate discovers a secret of her parents that she had always suspected. This secret along with her husband's prolonged mourning of the passing of her father leads her to suspect that history is repeating itself.

The world might admire power and money, but it also esteemed the arts. By associating himself with Pa, might he not borrow a few rays of Pa's aura? To Dicky appearance and reality were the same. If he looked as if he had everything, why, then he had everything. It was why he was perfectly happy. I had again been married to my father.

Although the characters were not overly developed, the story was exactly as the author introduced: an assessment of a character's past following the death of her father. Taking an assessment of our past is something we all tend to do when an event changes our course in life. Pa's Darling was an interesting short story that I enjoyed.

"Pa's Darling" by Louis Auchincloss (from The Yale Review) from The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King with Heidi Pitlor

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Robertson Davies' High Spirits

Toronto : Penguin, c1982.

Now, here's a short story collection which does challenge ghost story tradition a bit. It's an 18 story collection, each written by Robertson Davies to be read yearly at his college's Gaudy Nights**. He began this habit in 1963 as Master of Massey College (Toronto) and maintained it for the 18 years he was there. The progression shows that each story was written according to yearly occurrences and social conditions.

In his intro he states:

Ghost stories tend to be very serious affairs. Who has ever heard of a ghost cracking a joke? I wanted my ghosts to be light-hearted, if not in themselves, at least as they appeared to my hearers. No new style would suit a ghost story, so it would be necessary to parody the usual style. And the parody would have to be affectionate, for cruel parody is distasteful in itself, and utterly outside the spirit of a party.
And the stories are mostly light and amusing, I would imagine especially so for those in the audiences for which they were written. If in that audience I am sure we would share in the references to mutual acquaintances, the habits of university life and the local settings within Massey College and Toronto. However, many of the stories still hold up for those of us reading them now, separate from all that. The collection is a bit uneven, however; a few are no longer successful, particularly to my mind the offering entitled The Ugly Spectre of Sexism. It was amazingly old-fashioned, sounding more 1920's than 70's. I guess we really do take for granted the attitude shift since the 70's; at least this is a reminder about that kind of thing.

I found that the first three stories were my favourites, lightly ironic about college life and featuring students, researchers and libraries. In the third story, The Great Queen is Amused, the narrator comes across a female researcher (clearly based on someone known to the audience) who has used an old book of Alistair Crowley's to call up the shade of an early Canadian writer in the dusty basement stacks of the college library, in order to clarify some research points with her. It has all gone horribly wrong:

"I suppose you called up a single spirit, and have received a wholesale delivery; Crowley is a most untrustworthy guide."

"But who are they?" said she.

"It is only too clear that they are the ghosts of the Canadian writers whose books are here," said I.

"Then why are they so noisy?" she asked. Every time I think of it, I realize what a wealth of national feeling was compressed into that one enquiry.

"They are clamouring to be reborn,"I explained... "Look, you see those who are floating in that strange, curled-up posture; they have placed themselves in the foetal position, so that, when a child is conceived, they are ready at once to take possession of it in the womb, and come to earth again."

"Whatever for?" said she.

"Perhaps they hope that this time they might be born American authors," said I.

This is an example of the light style he uses, and for the most part it is quite funny. Canadians will find certain jokes still relevant, but you don't have to be Canadian to enjoy this. Some of the stories are still quite entertaining, some are just ok. Still, overall it's a good set of academic-themed, humorous ghost stories, and if you already like Davies you will want to read it.

** An example of Davies existing in another time than we live in now, "Gaudy" derives from the Latin gaudium and Old French gaudie, meaning "merry-making" or "enjoyment". A college gaudy is a dinner; primarily this was an Oxford tradition. Also, when Davies began as first Master of Massey College, it was a male-only college, not admitting women until 1974.
cross-posted at The Indextrious Reader

Friday, October 17, 2008

An Aftermath of Hope and Regret

“Aftermath”, a short story written by Mary Yukari Waters available in the Laws of Evening, is one of the those rare short stories that can present a timeless theme of change and the consequences that come with it.  Just as the country of Japan is struggling with its own national identity after WWII, a mother, Makiko, and her son, Toshi, are struggling with their own identities and how to proceed with their lives.  While Makiko is determined to stay true to the ancient Japanese culture which her generation was raised in, Yoshi is beginning to embrace an American culture that Makiko believes not only destroyed her country but killed her husband, Yoshitsune.  The idea of choosing between two completely different cultures is a timeless theme and “Aftermath” could be interpreted today and even fifty years in the future.  However, Mary Yukari Waters is very careful with the tone her story, though Aftermath deals with the destruction of Japan there is hope that from the ruins something greater could grow.  Similar to the song Let It Be by the Beatles, both Let It Be and “Aftermath” have a similar tone of sadness and regret, but an even greater tone of hope.  In Let It Be, at first, Paul McCartney is sad that he is reminded of his mother’s tragic death, but at the end of the song, he is rejoicing that his mother has come back to him, “And when the night is cloudy/There is still a light that shines on me/Shine until tomorrow/Let it be/There will be an answer/Let it be.”  Compared to “Aftermath”, “Tonight there is a full moon.  Earlier, at dusk, it was opaque and insubstantial.  Now through shifting moisture in the air, it glows bright and strong, awash with light.”  However, perhaps Yukari Waters was making a statement by putting this story in the past Japan rather than many present third world countries that hope is fading for those who are now faced with this difficult choice of cultures.  CR

An Aftermath of Hope and Regret

Julio Cortaz’s “Blow-up” is the story of one man’s perception. The Story begins with the character talking in the first person and later switches over to himself talking in the third person. At times the story is confusing not knowing what is real and overall if you can trust what the narrator is telling the reader. As the story continues Michel (main character) observes a boy and a woman interacting with each other. He immediately jumps to conclusions without ever actually ever hearing their conversation but telling the viewer what they are talking about and how they ended up at this point. “The boy had come on to the tip of island, seen the woman and thought her marvelous. The woman was there waiting for that because she was there waiting for that.” Michel himself goes into romantic fantasies about the characters as well. “Now the woman had swung around smoothly, putting the young boy between herself and the wall.” Rereading the article I feel as though this romantic aspect of the story is made up by the narrators own mind, never really happening because it all seems so absurd. Later in the story Michel gets a picture of the two and blows it up on his wall where he constantly stares at it and asses the story over and over in his head. He slowly becomes more and more obsessed as he evaluates the situation between these two strange “lovers”.
Chekhov’s “The Kiss” reminds me of some aspects in this story. Riabovich, who is the main character in this story, could be compared to Michel. Both of these characters become overwhelmed with a situation that most people wouldn’t think twice about after it had happened. Both characters are no better off in the end and both characters let their problems consume their lives.
The story also reminded me of Pablo Picasso’s Figures on a Beach. This is because I find this story to not be what it seems just as are many of Picasso’s paintings. In figures on the Beach it is hard to decipher the image because of how jumbled the two figures are.

The Fly

“The Fly,” written by Katherine Mansfield, is a short story about a troubled man called “the boss.” We are first introduced to Mr. Woodifield and his familial struggles but eventually, the story takes an unpredictable turn in that we realize the plot focuses around the boss. Woodifield remains not as a minor nor a major character, but remains as a key element of the plot that pushes to the point of the story: the boss’s grief over his son and how he chooses to express his grief. Although Woodifield is already struggling with his own family problems, we find out that his struggle is only an introduction to a far more serious and dramatic situation involving the boss and his son. The story quickly becomes dark when the boss suddenly notices a fly trying to save itself from being drowned in pen ink. He is immediately intrigued by the fly’s determination and bravery but is then somehow engulfed in a sadistic state of violence and murder, ultimately causing the fly to fall into an unfortunate predicament. Once he wakes from his sadistic state, it is as if nothing had happened and he returns to his usual business during the day.

The sadistic characteristics hidden underneath the boss’s exterior reminded me of Vincent Van Gogh’s troubled mind. Van Gogh’s struggle against madness is similar to the boss’s struggle against grief and trauma over his son. Van Gogh’s struggle against madness can be seen through his use of dark colors in his artwork such as “Starry Night” and, while the boss’s struggle against his feelings is expressed through the fly’s doomed predicament.

“The Fly” is similar to Mary Yukari Waters’s “The Aftermath.” Both stories exhibit an adult figure exhibiting negative feelings over the well-being of his or her son. However, the stories are different in the way that the boss in “The Fly” is distraught over his son’s death, while the mother, Makiko, in “The Aftermath” is not distraught but anxious and worrisome over the American influence over her son.


Daddy Wolf Blog

You aren’t the first person who is curious about “Daddy Wolf” and chose to read this blog. The writer, James Purdy, is a master of human emotion and expression. In this story, he chooses a resident of New York City named Benny as the central character. This Benny is quite the talker and throughout the recap his life in the big city, the reader learns more and more about what his true feelings are. At first, Benny complains so much about the holes in his linoleum that are “so goddam big now – you can go in there and take a look” that at first, you almost miss the point of the story completely when it is first mentioned.

This leads me to say that if this story were a color, it would be dark grey. To explain this conclusion, let’s start with the color black. With our thorough knowledge of the color spectrum, we know that black is a combination of every other color, however, no light reflects off of it so our eyes just register the lack of color thereof. Benny has many emotions and feelings inside, but the reader does not pick up on them at first without further insight into Benny’s character – hence the dark grey comparison. Therefore, when more is learned about Benny throughout “Daddy Wolf”, the reader can put the pieces together come away from the story with a thorough knowledge of his character.

Besides color, “Daddy Wolf” can be compared to the short story “Aftermath” by Mary Yukari Waters. Nothing is ever told in a straight-forward manner in either story. For example, when the mother is the only one left sitting in the stands at her son’s baseball game in “Aftermath”, the writer does not scream out that she does not have a husband to cook dinner for; she simply alludes to the fact.

I recommend “Daddy Wolf” to anyone and everyone with a need to read and a desire to delve into something that is not what it first seems. And if you thought I was going to tell you what is beneath the story’s surface in my blog, think again. ~M.M.

We have all heard the expression “less is more” and in the story of Canaries by Ysaunari Kawabata from the book, “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories”, he does just this. In forty-two lines he tells the sad story of a man writing a final goodbye letter to his lover. She had purchased a set of canaries for him which his late wife had taken care of until she died. I saw that there was not much depth to the characters but I found that what I thought was a flaw turned out to give the story a venire; a sense of mystery. Questions are brought up like, why was there an affair in the first place? Did the wife die of a broken heart? Why did the man address his lover as “Madam” instead of her name? The list is endless. I do not know if this was intentional of Kawabata but that is where the story is given depth. One of the major ideas in the story is the fact that the man writes “the shopkeeper simply caught a male and female at random and put them in a cage.” suggesting that their relationship had become nothing more than two strangers caged together. This is yet another unanswered idea that Kawabata leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.
This is extremely different from the story Blow-Up by Julio Cortazar. From the very beginning, he over indulges the reader with endless thoughts about his characters and never misses a chance to “fill in the blanks”. It is a story about a man who thinks he took a picture of a young boy, in the park, about to have sex for the first time with a hooker. He becomes so captivated by the photo that he makes an enlargement (a blow-up). He keeps expanding it until he notices a man in the background of the photo and comes to realize his original thought was completely misled. This was a story that took awhile to get going yet Cortazar is able to paint a beautiful picture of the park where the photographer was sitting. His over indulging of language was able to fully enrich the story but at the same time it did not leave any sense of mystery for the reader unlike Kawabata.
Both these stories are great opposites from each other. One is able to let the reader pave their own path about the story where as the other a path has already been laid with a few twists and turns in the road. I wish that these would be packaged in a set together due to their complete opposite formats. They remind me of the boxed set movie(s) “Grindhouse” - two movies, opposite cinematography. The first movie is Death Proof directed by Quentin Terintino where the main focus is the character relationships. There is very little action, which is made up by unique dialogues giving a simplicity to the movie. Contrary to this is the movie “Planet Terror” directed by Robert Rodriguez. There is nothing left out. Each scene is a feast for the eyes while not saying very much for the characters. There is obviously character development but that is not one of the main aspects to the film, the same as “Blow-Up”. There is a plot to follow which ultimately changes, yet there is not much depth to the characters. So let’s hope that Kawabata and Cortazar will release their stories together. Maybe they could call it Caged Thought.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Short Story Parabolic Mirrors

Two portrayals of men whose lives have been devastated by tragedy- one whose son has fallen in war, one who relives losing his innocence, are found within The Fly and Blow-up. Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly narrows the reader’s field of vision to the observation of small details. The boss in the story is still distraught, regardless of the six years passed since his son’s death. It’s the petty action, the torturing of the fly, that shows what turmoil the boss still experiences.
He plunged his pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and as the fly tried its wings, down came a great heavy blot.
The scale of this torture, a fly, a struggle in a drop of ink, are symbolic of the magnitude of the bosses defeat. He is rendered small, so much so that even his well of anger has been relinquished to an inkpot. This portrayal of a deep wound through a tiny ubiquitous object is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s treatment of blades of grass on the lawn at ‘Oxbridge’ in her essay A Room of One’s Own. Both authors are able to transform innate objects into receptacles of profound emotion, creating literary worry dolls.
Woolf uses internal dialogue to draw a shockingly honest picture of a broken psyche in much the same way that Julio Cortazar does in Blow-up. The parabolic mirror image of the character’s own view of himself is confused, broken by time, doubles back on itself, even to the extent that on seven occasions he refers to himself in the third person. Unlike in Mansfield the reader steps inside the picture with Blow-Up, rather than watching through a window.
… If I am I or what actually occurred or what I’m seeing (clouds, and once in a while a pigeon) or if, simply, I’m telling a truth which is only my truth…
The characters thoughts become the readers, as that is all she is given. Yet the view is still constrained, in this case by the characters own emotional limitations.
The girls were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie’s grave, and they happened to come across your boys.
The readers view of the boss in Mansfield’s work is framed in finite space, the emotional trigger of one twenty-two word sentence in one tiny moment of time brings forth six years worth of the bosses misery.
Much like Hobbes’ atomist theory, all events can be broken into tiny particles that make up our experiences as humans. Both authors revealed to us that life is lived in what is small; a blade of grass, a single snapshot, a drop of ink, or a sentence uttered by a close friend. Regardless of the scope of the view, life is in the details. -MM

The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket

In this short story, “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” written by Yasunari Kawabata found in the Palm of the Hand Stories by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, is told through the eyes of a narrator.  Taking place on the slopes of Japan, the narrator watches as children engage on an insect chase at the base of an embankment.  Each child with a home made lantern in hand, unique with different colored paper stretched over the sides, and old-fashioned patterns so that from distance you just see a “bobbing cluster of beautiful varicolored lanterns.” Kawabatta goes on about this insect chase as an outsider looking in on these children in a simple yet captivating way that pulls you in yourself.  She makes a seemingly insignificant moment like the exchanging on an insect and the way light happens to hit something seem so important. In the end, when the story turns to the thoughts of wisdom of the narrator you learn that this story is not just about a childish insect chase, but how it is a metaphor for something much greater in life. As the narrator seems to speak from experience imparting wisdom we learn about love and hope.  That  “even is you have the wit to look by yourself in a bush away from the other children, there are not many bell crickets in the world.” And grasshoppers may seem like bell crickets and bell crickets may seem like grasshoppers. However, this story is also about hope, which “should the day come, when it seems to you that the world is full of grasshoppers.” Remember the moments when your beautiful lantern on a girl’s chest writes your name. Much like Chekhov’s, “The Kiss” it is a short story about a moment so ordinary yet can change you forever. And like Bob Marley’s famous Redemption song about “emancipating yourself form mental slavery”, sung with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, this story is simple but you will catch you off guard with a  deeper meaning. BS

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Glimpses at the Complexity of Life and the Human Condition

Yasunari Kawabata’s short story Canaries is a forbidden letter to a past lover that babbles and eddies with the narrator’s awkwardness and emotions. The subtext of the letter successfully tackles the complexity of human relationships. Superficially the narrator laments his recently deceased wife and is reminiscent of his long lost lover, Madam. The story is grounded in the relatively trivial fate of a pair of birds he received as a gift from Madam, who instructs him to: “Please remember me with these birds. Perhaps it’s odd to give living creatures as a souvenir, but our memories, too are alive.” As the birds inevitably near the end of their life, he desperately tries to create something out of the memories they are preserving. He habitually returns to clarification phrases such as “I’ll put it plainly” and “I’ll say it again”. When the letter drifts into those serious emotional territories, the narrator returns to the trivial topic of the birds. The letter reads more like a schizophrenic self exploration then genuine correspondence.
James Purdy’s Daddy Wolf (1923) also has a narrator who is dependendent on communication to cope with personal hardships. At times it is unclear which of the narrator’s many strangers is absorbing his burden by putting up with listening. Is it a stranger on the phone, the operator, the stranger in the hall, or myself as the reader of the story? The narrator of this story has taken this situation to a ludicrous degree. “It’s funny talking to you like this, Mister, and as I told the lady I am waiting to get reconnected with on the phone, if I didn’t know any better I would think either one of you was Daddy Wolf on the Trouble Phone”. The man in Kawabata’s story, who seems more in touch with reality is merely trying to cope with his emotions through the postal system, while the narrator in Daddy Wolf is not satisfied with his “Trouble Phone” as an outlet, and franticly unloads his baggage on passersbys and strangers.
The very concept of a relationship that is complex in presentation, and obscured by secrecy, dances at the edge of understanding the human predicament. Like these short stories, it is this polar duality that makes Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” (1967) so magical while remaining so concise. In only 140 words, Dylan paints a picture of the disturbingly unhealthy relationship between “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains” and Tom Paine. It is his mastery over the rhetoric of human relationships that allows the complexity of the situation to be subtle and technically unwritten.



A Sunny Place

When one thinks of sunny places they would normally categorize this with happier thoughts. In Kawabata’s “A Sunny Place”, the happiness of the narrator just isn’t as obvious as a sunny place. Kawabata uses significant narrative skills to express all of the trials and tribulations that the narrator has gone through and how he has developed because of all of this.

Kawabata’s short story begins with the narrator acknowledging his bad habit of staring as he continues to stare at a girl that he just met. Obviously embarrassed by his constant staring, he speaks about his annoying habit, saying “I felt an intense self-hatred every time I realized I was doing it. Maybe this habit came from having spent all my time reading others’ faces once I had lost my parents and my home when I was a child and gone to live with others. Perhaps that is why I have turned out this way.”

As the story progresses, the narrator gains a sudden realization that his bad habit of staring at people’s faces actually came from a different and more significant event. Through spending plenty of time with his blind grandfather, the narrator’s concern for him started to grow as he realized that he could only face one direction. Thus the staring began. Once he grasps all of this, the narrator’s sense of security begins to rise once again as he joyfully realizes that his strange habit of staring at people’s faces did not originate from “base motives”.

In comparison to Julio Cortazar’s “Blow-Up”, I think that this story also expresses realization and recognition just as much as “A Sunny Place” does. The only difference between the two stories is that “Blow-Up” revolves around the realization of a specific event while “A Sunny Place” revolves around the realization of one’s personality. In “Blow-Up”, the protagonist character realizes that things are not as they might seem on the outside. He believes that he is taking pictures of a regular couple when really; there is something deeper and more intense that is going on under the surface.

To a certain extent, “A Sunny Place” is just like escargot. Most people believe that escargot is too strange to eat and they probably wouldn’t even bother trying it. But if you look past it’s bizarreness, you might just have the sudden realization that it isn’t what it seems, just like the narrator’s unfortunate habit of staring.


"The Fly"

Katherine Mansfield’s “The Fly” demonstrates the importance of being able to pick yourself up after a tragedy. While visiting a friend named the boss, Mr. Woodifield mentions his friend’s late son. The boss immediately reverts to a place where he must cry and mourn. He laments his loss, “‘My son!’ groaned the boss. But no tears came yet. In the past, in the first few months, and even years after the boy’s death, he had only to say those words to be overcome by such grief...” The fact that he cannot cry anymore is his heart telling him to move on and remember the happy days, but he is determined to fight it.
When the boss saves a drowning fly, and subsequently endangers it, he is amazed at the fly’s ability to save itself. This reflects the boss’ inability to save himself. Since his son’s death, the boss has not been able to get to a peaceful place. The fly’s persistence also reveals how the boss may wish that his son could have saved himself, if he had only demonstrated enough perseverance.
The boss’s entrapment in the past is also a commentary on a flaw of humans. Like many people, the boss is too focused on the past to be able to finish his life happily. In contrast to his human foe, the fly does not dwell on each new drop of ink that hits, it continues to wipe its wings until it is impossible to continue.
I enjoyed reading “The Fly,” because I was surprised by the actions the main character took, and how he could not follow the fly’s example and press forward. Jane Eyre, reminds me of this story because Rochester endures so many hardships and is at the same lost man by the end. He needs someone to pull him up, which everyone needs at some point. The boss could definitely use some assistance.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blowing Up

I recently read the short story “Blow-up” by Julio Cortazar. At least I think I did. I think I read it several times. After reading it several times, I realized what was really going on. 

So I read it again--for the first time, really.

This vignette seems really dreamlike, with the narrators intense imagery from the littlest details, “...there's wind in Paris, and even less seldom a wind like this that swirled round corners and rose up to whip at old wooden venetian blinds behind which astonished ladies commented variously on how unreliable the weather has been these last three years” so that only in this chaotic environment Cortazar could create a new story to arise within the narrator’s mind. 

The narrator’s total obsession over the photograph is comparable to a soldier’s obsession over a faceless woman in Anton Chekov’s “The Kiss” in that each character is obsession over something that they had no control over to begin with, only to find themselves in an orbit of pain and confusion.

This story is reminiscent of the 1979 film The Conversation, where an unknowing bystander is suddenly absorbed into a conflict that eventually destroys his life. Each is interesting--if not frustrating--because only in the end do we realize the damage of their decision to interfere in others’ business.

Totally unique to “Blow-up” is the perspective of the narrator, or what he believes his perspective is. We can never really know what or where the narrator is at the beginning and at the ending of the vignette, all the audience gets is the picture of a blue sky with the occasional pigeon flying past. Such utter loss of reality is the element that makes this story worthy of reading, because one can never really know what happened to the narrator and what photograph was really caught that day. 


Andrew Carter's Canaries Blog

Kawabata’s Canaries is a story of great heartbreak and sadness.  At the start of the story, we are immediately introduced to a depressed man who has lost his wife and is dealing with committing infidelity. The story is in letterform, and is being written to the narrator’s mistress. He is explaining to the woman that he is going to give up the canaries that she gave him when they were together. The canaries were originally intended as a love memento, but now, as the birds are in their frail last stage of life, they only remind the narrator of who was once their caretaker: his wife. This makes the narrator start to wonder if it was in fact his wife who brought him memories of his mistress, because she kept the birds alive and took care of them. The conflict the narrator deals with is an interesting inner turmoil, and an ironic one at that; you’d think that if the man cheated on his wife, he wouldn’t want to think about her in the first place, and not only does he do so, but the canaries which are supposed to remind him of his “madam” are reminding him of his wife. Fancy that. It’s also plausible to wonder what the man is really upset about, losing his wife or having the affair? A morose, thought-provoking and even somewhat ominous tale, Canaries evokes, ever so slightly, an aspect of Purdy’s Daddy Wolf. The aspect that both narrator’s have lost their wives and are broken up about it creates a similarity between the two stories. They both deal with a love lost, but the way each main character deals with their emotions is what differs the two. If Canaries were a song, however, it would have to be “Fix You” by Coldplay; the lyrics speak for themselves: “When you lose something you can’t replace; When you were too in love to let it go” and the song sounds like that for the majority of it’s 5 minute running time. AC