Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"Riding the Doghouse" by Randy DeVita

“Riding the Doghouse” by Randy DeVita (2006)
First Published in West Branch, No. 58 Spring/Summer
Reprinted in
The Best American Short Stories® 2007

I have actually read several short stories from the collection. However, I have had a difficult time with preparing their reviews. I am not sure why. Part of it, I must admit, is that I am used to having a story and its characters develop over time, thus I get to know them better – or at least feel as if I do. When the narrative is shortened, I must look a little deeper and work a little harder at comprehending the author's intent. Of course, this is why I joined this challenge. I wanted to stretch myself, and my sensibilities as a reader.

Previously, the only short stories I have read were ghost or horror stories; ones that are perfect for camp-outs and pajama parties. I loved them as a child, and I still do.

I think that is why I was drawn to this particular story by Randy DeVita. For it seems that not all ghosts prowl about creepy mansions in the middle of the night. Some live in the deep recesses of our memories: lurking, waiting, haunting.

As with other, classic ghost stories I remember, this one begins in the darkness of early morning:
“A storm outside. Beside me the soft breath of my wife shifts the covers that we share. I am dozing, trapped between midnight and dawn, and in my half-sleep, I listen as rain sleets against our bedroom window; oak branches, stripped by autumn, scrape at the back of the house. A surge of electrons excites the air; my ears hum. There is a violent crash, like a shattered windshield, and thunder drums past like traffic on the interstate. The windows rattle in their frames.
My eyes snap open.”
It is not only the storm that has awakened the narrator. And to explain why, would mean spoilers.

According to the author, this story derived at a time when he had
“...been writing, with alarming consistency, pretty forgettable horror stories – stories far too consciously intended to scare others. So I challenged myself to write about something I feared,”
He also acknowledges that while revising the story, he discovered it was also a story about a relationship – that “Maybe that’s enough for a story – two people speaking to each other in a closed space, unwilling or unable to say what they really mean.”

In my opinion he succeeded in writing about both.

Sometimes the ghosts are of our own making. And that it is not what we say, but what we have not said, which haunts us.

(Review also posted here)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Black Thorn, White Rose - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

The second in the fairy tale anthologies collected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Again it contains short stories that are adult re-tellings of fairy tales. This time there are 18 tales by 18 different authors with the only cross overs from the first in the series being Susan Wade, Nancy Kress and Jane Yolen with Susan Wade writing the only completely original tale in the collection again.

Worlds Like Pale Stones - Nancy Kress
A re-telling of Rumplestiltskin looking at the magic of words and the power of knowledge. Ludie is the daughter of a drunk and a boastful washerwoman who tells people she can spin straw into gold. She is taken to the Prince and told if she cannot spin gold she will be killed. A rat-boy comes to her aid, one of the Old Ones, and when she spins gold she is forced to marry the Prince. She gives birth to the savage Dirk before finally running away when a woman who can spin straw into diamonds is found.

Stronger Than Time - Patricia C Wrede
A bittersweet look at Sleeping Beauty. A Prince appears on the doorstep one evening of a woodcutter and persuades him to help him reach the keep contained within the thorns. He claims there is an enchantment within caused by the Count insulting a witch-woman at the christening of his daughter. She laid a curse that on the girls sixteenth birthday she would die, but the Queen was able to counter it keeping her alive for 100 years safe in her resting place. She was very specific and her magic was to cause a specific Prince to arrive to set her free the day after the 100 years had passed. Unfortunately the Prince was impatient and arrived a day too early and was killed by the thorns. This new Prince is a relative of the one who died and has come to finish the task.

Samnus's Fair Maid - Ann Downer
Another Sleeping Beauty tale. The roles are slightly reversed and it is the male who has the sleeping sickness which his Aunt believes can be cured by a kiss from the one he loves.

The Frog King or Iron Henry - Daniel Quinn
A look at what happened to the Frog King after he was rewarded by the Princess for bringing back her golden ball. Scattered bits of information recalled by one with amnesia.

Near Beauty - M E Beckett
A strange science fiction tale if a sleeping beauty and an amphibian. Amanda talks to the three foot toad she finds in her boyfriends shower called Kane and they strike up a friendship that no one else knows about. An odd tale that sees them leaving and her becoming the Pilot for the Carnival the toad is in.

Ogre - Michael Kandel
Another strange tale about an ameatur dramatics group putting on a fairy tale performance of "The Yellow Dwarf". One of the cast members is an ogre who eats human flesh sandwiches prepared by his mother. When the director is fired by the ogre-like Connie, it is the ogre who is kind and thanks him for his direction.

Can't Catch Me - Michael Cadnum
A look at The Ginger-Bread Man. He is born in a hot oven before escaping into the cold world. On escaping from his parents and running away from them and his neighbour who chases him with a pitch fork, he stops long enough to repeatedly taunt those chasing him. He crosses a rinver on the head of a river fox who eats him all up, but ginger doesn't agree with foxes and the parts brought back up run away faster!

Journey Bread Recipie - Lawrence Schimel
A strange, short poem on how a wolf, child and hood for grandma can be made into bread. I very much enjoyed this short poem:
"5. Now crack the wolf and sseperate the whites -
the large eyes, the long teeth - from the yolks."

The Brown Bear of Norway - Isabel Cole
A classic Scandinavian tale in the "animal bridegroom" folklore tradition.It implies that the sorcery of shapeshifting is not to different from the magic used in turning from adolescence to adulthood.It follows a young girl living in New York who has a boy from Norway in her class. He gives her an address of someone back home who wants a penpal. They begin to write to each other and he signs his letters The Brown Bear of Norway. He starts to visit her in the evenings and tells her not to look at him, but one day she cannot resist and he is gone. She learns Norwegian and tracks him to his homeland, eventually finding him changed from a bear to the boy she knew from school.

The Goose Girl - Tim Wynne-Jones
Tells the story from the viewpoint of the Prince in the traditional tale. For a lark a Princess and her chambermaid exchange places before they meet the Prince the Princess has been sent to marry. Things go a little further than planned with the Prince marrying the chambermaid and the Princess being sent to work with the geese. The Old King realises what has happened and asks the chambermaid what punnishment someone who had done something like this should recieve, and then committs this punnishment upon her. Things do not quite end happily ever after as the new Queen is cold and unforgiving on the Prince.

Tattercoats - Midori Snyder
A lovely tale of Lilian who has been married to Edward for 7 years before feeling something is missing from their marriage. Her mother, the Queen, gives her a series of impressive gifts including a tattered coat made of animal skins which she says is the most important as it will teach her about herself. Lilian tries wearing the different beautiful dresses to attract her husbands attention, but ends up wearing the tattered coat on a bridge and seducing her husband. They begin to meet in secret, her hidden in the furs and him unsure who she is, until one day after they have rebuilt their marriage she decides it is the final meeting and she is going to tell the truth. Turns out Edward was not so unsuspecting afterall.

Granny Rumple - Jane Yolen
Yolen's take on Rumplestiltskin using her Granny as the main storyteller and the sad murder of her husband for being Jewish. It brought a lovely personal twist to the well known tale.The

Sawing Boys - Howard Waldrop
Based on a tale I didn't know called "The Bremen Town Musicians" and retold in the South of America. A group of people end up in a small town in Kentucky intent on mischief and murder, until they are dissuassed by local musicians entering the towns music contest.

Godson - Roger Zelazny
A very cool tale about David who has a very interesting Godfather. It is based on a Brothers Grimm tale and I don't want to say too much as it will spoil the story and it is one of the best in the collection.

Ashputtle - Peter Straub
A strange and unsettling tale about a Kindergarden teacher called Mrs Asch. She is excellent at her job although it is unclear whether she even likes the children she teaches and their parents. Every so often a child or parent goes missing from where she teaches and the implication is that she is killing them. Each time she moves on with no suspiscion to another town.

Silver and Gold - Ellen Stribar
A poem baed on Little Red Riding Hood looking at the path we take through life and the wolves we face in the real world. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the ones who love you and the ones who will eat you alive.

Sweet Bruising Skin - Storm Constantine
A wonderful re-telling of The Princess and the Pea told from the eyes of the Princes mother who is a cruel sorceress. Lots of alchemy, magic and death, the story looks at what happens after the Prince marries the Princess with the bruised skin. My favourite in the collection by far.

The Black Swan - Susan Wade
An original tale looking at how far women will go to transform themselves to a particular ideal of feminine beauty. Ylianna is dark to her cousins light and desires to change everything about herself secretly. When she unveils herself to everyone in the Kingdom including Prince Sigfried they all fall in love with her. However, she is accused of having an affair with the kind servant who helped her to transform (the narrator of the tale) and Sigfried openly denies her. She rushes upstairs and throws herself off the balcony, but instead of hearing her body hit the ground a beautiful black swan flies away to freedom.

My absolute favourite was Sweet Bruising Skin. It was interesting to sympathise with such a controlling tryant rather than the innocent Princess. I also really enjoyed The Black Swan, Silver and Gold, Godson (perhaps my second favourite), Tattercoats, The Goose Girl, The Brown Bear of Norway and Journey Bread Recipie. It took me a little longer to get into this anthology as the first stories didn't appeal to me as much, but I am so glad I stuck with it as they got much better.

Melisande by E. Nesbit

When Princess Melisande was born, her mother, the Queen, wished to have a christening party, but the King put his foot down, and said he would not have it.

"I've seen too much trouble come of christening parties," said he. "However carefully you keep your visiting book, some fairy or other is sure to get left out, and you know what that leads to. Why, even in my own family the most shocking things have occurred. The Fairy Malevola was not asked to my great-grandmother's christening – and you know all about the spindle and the hundred years' sleep."

This is a lovely subversive fairytale, written by Edith Nesbit, author of Five Children and It, and several other magical children's stories set in Victorian London. She is probably most famous for The Railway Children, but all her stories are full of wonderfully pragmatic characters and in this one, subtitled "Long and Short Division", the royal parents are no exception.

When the King and Queen return from their daughter's christening they are greeted by some seven hundred irate fairies, insisting that a party has been held without them – that there has been a christening is self-evident and, since this must therefore constitute a chistening party, they will give their presents now. At the forefront, of course, is Malevola, who announces that, as her present, the princess will be bald. Just as the next fairy is about to make her gift, the King intervenes: have they forgotten that fairies who break traditions are snuffed out? Do they realise the risk they are running? "Only one bad fairy is ever forgotten at a christening party and the good ones are always invited; so either this is not a christening party or else you were all invited except one, and, by her own showing, that was Malevola. It nearly always is."

Having bested the fairies, this splendid king goes on to show more common sense over his now-bald infant. He has an unused wish from his fairy godmother, and asks her permission to hand it on to Melisande, but not until she grows up – after all, she might grow hair anyway, or she might prefer something else. All may yet be well.

Unfortunately the princess, happy to please her mother, manages to wish for hair that never stops growing. Nesbit goes on to weave in subversive references to other fairy stories including, of course, Rapunzel - though in this story poor Melisande is forced out of her window by her ever-growing hair. The usual recourse of finding a "competent" hero is futile until the arrival of Prince Florizel but, rather than effecting a miraculous cure in the manner of fairytale princes, he manages to make matters worse.

I love the unexpected twists and turns and complications in this story - I wondered if poor Melisande would ever be able to marry her prince and live happily ever after, though you could tell from their conversations that they were ideally suited. It's a perfect introduction to fairy tales, in that the conventions are all observed: the appropriate players - King and Queen, princess, fairies, princes - line up on stage, the narrator explains and interprets for the reader, adversity is faced with the proper incomprehension by the host of suitors before the hero arrives to overcome it with courage and ingenuity, the princess is amenable to falling in love with the right prince. Yet the path of this tale never runs entirely smoothly from one element to the next, keeping the reader entranced until the end.

Cross-posted at the Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.

High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories

High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Robertson Davies

Pages: 198
First Published: 1982
Rating: 3/5

Comments: A collection of stories Davies wrote each year as Master of Massey College. These stories are funny, witty and satirical. Some stand out much more than others. These are best read slowly, one here, one there as they do have a sameness to them that tires. Recommended for fans of Davies.

Follows is a brief synapses (without spoilers) and my opinion on each story.

How The High Spirits Came About - In the introduction, Davies explains how every Christmas for the 18 years he was the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto he would tell a ghost story. This is a collection of these 18 tales. The stories are parodies of the classic ghost story.

#1) Revelation From a Smoky Fire - in this story the current and first Master of Massey College finds in his rooms a man who professes to be the ninth Master of Massey College one hundred years hence, and we soon find our narrator is not who he seems to be.

#2) The Ghost Who Vanished By Degrees - this was a fun story of a ghost, who killed himself because he failed his PhD thesis, who takes our narrator hostage one night and makes him listen to the many thesis he has prepared since his death as he shall never be at peace until he has it.

#3) The Great Queen is Amused - This was a really fun story! A woman doing research in the university library (which is known for its Canadian Lit. collection) comes across an occult book which tells how to call a spirit. Thinking she'd like to ask Sara Jeanette Duncan a few questions she follows the instructions but ends up with a room full of the spirit of every Canadian author whose book is in the library. Very funny!

#4) The Night of the Three Kings - Our narrator investigates noises and winds up in a filing room where he finds the spirit of King George V searching for a rare stamp he accidentally once put on an envelope. The story ends with a definite Canadian twist.

#5) The Charlottetown Banquet - The narrator spends the night having a Victorian dinner with Sir John A. MacDonald.

#6) When Satan Goes Home For Christmas - This time our narrator meets Satan who is upset because he is never invited home for Christmas.

#7 Refuge of Insulted Saints - Hearing a knock at the door one evening our narrator opens the door to find Babs (otherwise known as Saint Barbara, Patron Saint of Artillery) standing at his door with a cannon pointing at him. She and many other saints who have just been deposed to legend status by Pope Paul VI (1969)are seeking asylum at the college. This was a lot of fun and very witty!

#8 Dickens Digested - A young man working on his thesis about Charles Dickens becomes more and more like Dickens himself. Lots of fun Dickensian-speak but not as good as other stories here.

#9 The Kiss of Khrushchev - A Russian exchange student, a member of the choir, disappeared some years ago but now our narrator has found a singing frog in the basement. This story was just plain weird.

#10 - The Cat That Went to Trinity - There are two new students in class this year. One named Elizabeth Lavenza the other named Enstein, given name Victor Frank. This gives our narrator cause for concern especially since he is teaching the Gothic novel this year. This was a really fun story, melodramatic and witty.

#11 - The Ugly Spectre of Sexism - I didn't really get this one very much. Written in 1972 it pokes fun at both feminism and chauvinism.

#12 - The Pit Whence Ye Are Digged - Another one that went over my head. This one dealt with poetry and time travel.

#13 - The Perils of the Double Sign - The narrator has a conversation with a small devil who has been trapped by a student whose hobby is astrology.

#14 - Conversations with the Little Table - Our narrator brings home an antique table which commences to tap around as if dancing. He and his wife sit down and find that the table once belonged to William Lyon Mackenzie King and he has a conversation with them. Another fun one.

#15 - The King Enjoys His Own Again - The spirits of King George IV and Bishop John Strachan debate with each other. I don't know anything about these people so I didn't enjoy this one much.

#16 - The Xerox in the Lost Room - Another fun one this time. The spirit of a poor relation immigrates to Canada when his manor is brought here and re-assembled. The manor is then opened up to the public and the ghost has had enough so he goes to the college and asks our narrator for asylum.

#17 - Einstein and the Little Lord - This was hilarious! As Einstein is visiting with our narrator, Little Lord Fauntleroy appears begging for Einstein's help in Paradise.

#18 - Offer of Immortality - A strange little man who is very cold and drinks a lot of vinegar, claims he is over 450 years old and offers Davies the opportunity to live forever.

Best American Short Stories 2007

I have just finished two short story collections that I have been reading from for a few months. I've decided I'll just make a post to blog when I finish a collection. Here is my brief opinion of the stories with no spoilers.

The Best American Short Stories 2007
Edited by Stephen King

Pages: 411
First Published: 2007
Rating: 3/5

Comments: An interesting collection of short stories by different authors with no common theme. The stories range from the mundane to the strange, from love stories to death stories. For me the best stories in the collection were in the first half of the book leaving the second half very underwhelming for me. None of the stories stick out as being absolutely fabulous but there are some that were very good. Overall, a decent collection of stories most suited to the literary reader. Follows are my brief synopses of each story (with no spoilers) with my thoughts.

1. Pa's Darling by Louis Auchincloss - set in the sixties, a woman reflects on how her larger than life father overshadowed her life. Readable, but didn't really do anything for me.

2. Toga Party by John Barth - This story takes place in an affluent gated retirement community and centers around one aged couple who are invited by the new people on the street to their toga-themed housewarming party. I really enjoyed this. The characterization of this seventy-something couple was wonderful and I found it to be a fast-paced read with a startling climax. I would be interested in reading more by Barth.

#3. Solid Wood by Ann Beattie - An elderly man and his sister have dinner with the recent widow of his best friend. There are some undercurrents that come to light for the reader as the dinner progresses. I didn't enjoy this one at all. It basically had no plot and, frankly, was boring. There is more to the story than appears at first but I prefer to read and think "wow, that was good" rather than "hmm, I wonder what this means".

#4. Balto by T.C. Boyle - A man and his 12-year-old daughter are on their way to court. This story recounts the events that lead up to the trial. The plot is more involved but any further description would contain spoilers. I was eager to read this story as Boyle is on my list of authors I'd like to read one day and this was my first sampling of his. I wasn't disappointed. This was a compelling story with a fast-paced read. I loved this one.

#5. Riding the Doghouse by Randy Devita - An eerie, disquieting story of father and son. A man remembers back to the year he was twelve and accompanied his trucker father for a week in the summer. The uneasiness in this story slowly builds and I really enjoyed it.

#6. My Brother Eli by Joseph Epstein - A man's younger brother (in his seventies) commits suicide and the older brother tells the story of his life. He was a famous writer, self-centered, egotistical, married five times with various children the brother has never met. The author contemplates whether an 'artist' is entitled to special rights and should be excluded from normal, decent behaviour because of their 'gift'. This story was longer than the others in this collection I've read so far and by far the best up to this point. It made me wish for a whole novel about these characters.

#7. Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You? by William Gay - I can't give a plot summary of this because I haven't a clue. I don't know what it was about or what it meant and what's with all the dialogue and no quotation marks? Ugh.

#8. Eleanor's Music by Mary Gordon - This was beautifully written and a haunting story. Eleanor is 51 and though she was married once she has lived with her parents for the last 18 years. They lead a lovely, simple old-fashioned life. Even their language to each other is quaint, as if from another generation. At first I felt nostalgic for their life and thought it was beautiful but slowly an uneasiness arises as we realize Eleanor's life is not what it seems on the surface. Then something drastic happens to her whole conception of her life and what she does and doesn't do after that event leaves this as a haunting tale.

#9. L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story by Lauren Groff - The title calls this a love story and it is that but it is also a tragedy of epic proportions. When I finished reading this my first thought was a stunned, "Wow." Set in 1918 this is the tragic love story of a former Olympic medalist swimmer and a young woman stricken with polio. The best story in this collection so far.

#10. Wake by Beverly Jensen - An interesting story of family dynamics. A brother and sister accompany their father's coffin as they bring him home for his funeral.

#11. Wait by Roy Kesey - Not impressed with this one at all. A bunch of people wait in an airport terminal as their flight is delayed over and over again.

#12 Findings & Impressions by Stellar Kim - I quickly realized this story was about someone dying of cancer so I skipped it as I don't read about that topic.

#13 Allegiance by Aryn Kyle - Glynnis and her parents have recently moved to America from England and she finds herself in the position of new girl at school. An unpopular girl has made moves to befriend her but Glynnis must choose between being unpopular also or making the right moves to become one of the popular crowd. There also is an unraveling story of why the parents moved to America and why the mother is so embittered.

#14 The Boy in Zaquitos by Bruce McAllister - A man gives a talk to a class about how he used to work for the government spreading deadly diseases in other countries. Strange.

#15 - Dimension by Alice Munro - skipped. This was an Andrea Yates type of story, only the father was the murderer, and that's not a spoiler.
#16 - The Bris by Eileen Pollack - skipped. A dying parent story.

#17 - St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. This is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Young werewolves are sent to the 'Home' to be raised by nuns and taught to behave like their human side and forget their wolf side.

#18 - Horeseman by Richard Russo - A University professor grapples with what her life has become over what she could have become.

#19 - Sans Farine by Jim Shepard - This concerns the man who was the executioner at the time of the French Revolution. The men in his family had been executioners for seven generations, only now he is facing problems as his wife does not agree with the royal executions. Just ok.

#20 - Do Something by Kate Walbert - Basically this was just a depressing story of a woman whose son died of leukemia and she has turned to making protest demonstrations on her own.

The Red Passport by Katherine Shonk

This week, I read a stunning short story collection: Katherine Shonk’s The Red Passport. All eight stories are set in the post-Soviet Union, the majority in Russia, but one in Ukraine. The stories themselves all feature an intersection between Americans and Russians/Ukrainians, but the view points differ. Shonk spent a year in Moscow in 1995, and her familiarity with the culture shows. I felt as if I was back there much of the time, and when I finished the book I was left with a deep longing for Krasnodar and my host family there. While I enjoyed all the stories, my favourites were “Our American,” “My Mother’s Garden,” and “Honey Month.”

In “Our American,” thirteen-year-old Ilya is trying to figure out why his brother Sasha, just home from the Chechen war, has changed so much. Then a young American-Amy-moves in next door; it turns out she has Russian heritage and has a year-long job with a collective farm outside Moscow. Sasha begins working as Amy’s driver, and soon Sasha, Ilya, and Amy have become close friends. But when this close friendship leads to dangerous dreams, things get out of hand. I love how Amy’s introduced:
That evening, as they finished dinner on their balcony, the American girl burst onto Elmira Petrovna’s, the sude hood of a forest-green dublyonka coat shrouding her face. She stood sniffling and blowing her nose. When Sasha coughed, she whirled around and lowered her hood. Her pink nose and cheeks emerged as if from a pool of water, the sun’s last years flaring in her dark curls. “Hi,” she said, burshing dampness from her lashes. “I’m Amy.”
Shonk is so good at showing the fundamental differences between Americans and Russians, it’s so impressive!

“My Mother’s Garden” takes place in Ukraine, in an area of extreme radiation contamination. The main character is a grown woman, with a twelve-year-old daughter and a very stubborn mother. The mother’s moved back to their home village, despite the levels of radiation, which spurs most of the conflict. The main character hates having to go back to sucha toxic place, but doesn’t want to leave her mother alone. On the other hand, she categorically forbids her daughter from coming with her, despite her mother’s incessant pleas to see her granddaughter. Americans barely play a role in this story, although this is an American scientist, which is an interesting exploration of the effects on regular people of Chernobyl.

Finally, the last story in the collection is “Honey Month.” The main character is Rachel, an American who has been living in Moscow for the last year with Jack her boyfriend/fiance who’s conducting research there. They’ve planned a honeymoon to Prague, and yet circumstances make Rachel wonder about her relationship. If I say much more, I’ll give away most of the story; but I connected most with Rachel and her very human insecurities out of all of the collection.
Yegor’s eyes narrowed. “What are you, American?”
Did she really say “Da” with an accent? Or did her assitance betray uniquely American luxuries-an excess of time and naivete? Jack would be mortified if he were here, she thought, and for the first time she felt glad he wasn’t. “Da,” she sighed.

I highly recommend this collection, both for those interested in modern Russian, and those interested in how people confront change.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

John Mutford's 4th Short Story Pick- Kate Sutherland's "Cool"

(Cross posted at The Book Mine Set)

Kate Sutherland, the brains behind both the short story discussion blog A Curious Singularity and the Short Story Reading Challenge, already had my respect for championing this underrated form. Turns out (thankfully) that she's also quite skilled.

I chose "Cool," because it concerned dancing and my daughter had her very first ballet class recently. She shuffled about on her toes like a nervous faun, but man, was she cute.

The girls in "Cool" are not, however, four years old. And thanks in part to books like A Complicated Kindness and lullabies for little criminals, the myth of the innocent girl has long been eradicated.

Sutherland takes a slightly different approach. While also starting at the cusp of change (right up front you know this will be a coming of age story), she focuses on what otherwise might be a peripheral character.

"Everything started the day Eva walked into Miss Waverly’s School of Dance."
But this is not about Eva. I love when authors are able to pull this off. Sometimes I find that authors try too hard to approach a story from an unexpected perspective (John Bemrose's The Island Walkers comes to mind). Fortunately Sutherland seemed to know to keep Eva, who'd perhaps be the more obvious choice, close.

And that is perhaps the crux of the story: choices. What defines coming-of-age but having to make difficult choices, and hopefully learning from them? Just as Eva would have been the easier choice for Sutherland, she was the easier choice for Beth (the narrator) to follow-- she was, afterall, the cool one. But, as we all know, the easiest, and more obvious choice is not always the best. Sutherland seemed to know that from the get go, Beth learns as the story goes on.

I have but one small complaint: the very last sentence. It seems too much of a summary to please me, too much of a declaration of what I, the reader, should have taken from the story. Granted, it was accurate, just unnecessary and I think the conclusion would have been stronger without it.

1. Girls Just Want To Have Fun- Cyndi Lauper
2. Safety Dance- Men Without Hats
3. Devil Inside- INXS
4. Someone Who's Cool- The Odds
5. It's Cool To Love Your Family- Feist

Kevin Brockmeier, "A Fable Containing a Reflection the Size of a Match Head in Its Pupil"

Kevin Brockmeier's story "A Fable Containing a Reflection the Size of a Match Head in Its Pupil" (excerpt), which appeared in the Winter 2007 edition of Georgia Review, is a fascinating work of speculative fiction which explores one simple question: What would the world be like if everyone was afraid to look directly into the eyes of others? The narrator describes a city in which everyone believes that the "spark of life" is contained in each person's eyes, and that "to look into someone else's eye was to risk having your spark consumed" - in other words, to have one's own life drained away. The narrator describes everyday life in this strange city, touching on practical considerations - store signs have to be hung at knee level, since shoppers always cautiously cast their eyes downward, and peepholes in front doors are drilled at a downward angle to reveal the waists of visitors and never the eyes - but more critically how this habit affects the interpersonal relationships of the residents.

Not looking into others' eyes, as the narrator sees it, does result in uncommon modesty and politeness, but also in people becoming unduly reserved and timid. And if, as the old saying goes, the eyes are the gateway into someone's soul, then not looking into others' eyes prevents one from seeing into others' souls, finding out what kind of people they really are, or truly connecting with them as fellow human beings. The narrator tells most of the story as a detached observer, as if he is an anthropologist studying a rare and newly discovered culture, but finally throws a twist at the end. Suddenly the story isn't about the reserved and timid residents of a single strange city, but about the narrator and his beloved - two people who probably regularly gaze deeply into each other's eyes and yet know as little about the soul and inner being of the other as the disconnected people of that city. The twist comes suddenly, but pleasantly, with all of the impersonal narrative of the city abruptly becoming the very personal narrative of two people who don't quite connect.

All in all, "A Fable Containing a Reflection the Size of a Match Head in Its Pupil" is an unconventional but very effective and moving story. I am quite impressed with it.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Communication Skills

"The secret to a happy marriage," my husband likes to tell me, "is good communication." I was reminded of his admonition while reading Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, for many of these characters suffer from a grave inability to communicate.

In this collection of nine elegantly written short stories, I met people like Shoba and Shukumar, a young couple mourning the death of their child, and burying their emotional pain so deeply they have barely acknowledged it to themselves. Also Twinkle and Sanjeev, a pair of newlyweds whose discovery of mysterious Christian icons hidden throughout their new home illuminates deep misunderstandings in their relationship. And in the title story, Mr. Karpasi, whose job it was to interpret the ailments of patients in a doctor's office, while he was suffering from his own painful emotional isolation.

Most of the characters are Indian, struggling to assimilate into Western culture, and so the communication schism becomes not only personal, but cultural as well. Rest assured, though, Lahiri has no problems communicating with her readers. Throughout these stories, her simple, direct prose resonated purely in my ear, and I could almost hear a soft voice with its lilting Indian accent pronouncing each perfectly chosen word.

And in spite of the serious themes she explores, Lahiri has a subtle air for poignant humor, as in this passage from This Blessed House:

He stood watching as she left the room, with her poster and her cigarette; a few ashes had fallen to the floor where she had been standing. He bent down, pinched them between his fingers, and deposited them in his cupped palm. The tender fourth movement, the adagietto, (of Mahler's Fifth Symphony) began to play on the stereo. During breakfast, Sanjeev had read in the liner notes that Mahler had proposed to his wife by sending her the manuscript of this portion of the scores. Although there were elements of tragedy and struggle in the Fifth Symphony, it was pricipally music of love and happiness.

He heard the toilet flush. "By the way," Twinkle hollered. "If you want to impress people, I wouldn't play this music. It's putting me to sleep."

Sanjeev went to the bathroom to throw away the ashes.

"The predicament at the heart of this book," Lahiri writes, "is the dilemma, the difficulty, and the impossibility of communicating emotional pain and affections to others, as well as expressing it to ourselves."

Indeed, there is almost a painful reserve to these characters, yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) the barriers they have so painstakingly erected, I was drawn to them, found myself yearning to help them open their hearts. In this collection, Lahiri herself became their "interpreter of maladies," the voice that guided me through their lives, articulating their emotions with great sensitivity and restraint.

What a sublime reading experience for me, and the perfect choice for my first selection in
The Short Story Challenge.

Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Copywrite 1999, Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Miflin
198 pages

cross posted at Bookstack

Monday, January 21, 2008

Black Ice, by Cate Kennedy - Wendy's Review

"For everything poisonous there's something else nearby to cure it, if you just look around." -From Black Ice-

Cate Kennedy's short story Black Ice was published on line at the New Yorker in September 2006. It is a quick read and written in accessible language. The story's narrator, a young boy by the name of Billy, disturbs the reader with his tale of rabbit trapping (he sells them to a neighbor as dog food). Billy's father has an edge of violence about him and although we do not have details of the boy's home life, the reader can assume he is raised with a firm and unforgiving hand. The tension in the story arises when a woman buys a vacant and crumbling home near Billy. She scoffs at the "local color" and wrinkles her nose in disgust at the idea of Billy's rabbit hunting. And although their interactions are brief, the reader is left with a distinct feeling of unease regarding Billy and the woman's differences in perspective.

Black Ice is a disturbing look at class conflict, as well as an environmental treatise of sorts. It uses nature as a symbolic and stark backdrop to human dissension. Billy is described in terms that equate him to the furry rabbits he quickly dispatches ("I made myself small as a rabbit and moved through them on my soft scrabbly claws.") which makes his ultimate behavior something the reader sees as destined to happen.

I am glad I will be discussing this with a group of readers at 21st Fiction Yahoo group because I think there are deeper elements to the story I may be missing.

Rated 3.5/5.

"Abroad," by Judy Budnitz

While I did vow to read five short story collections in 2008, I also vowed to dip and dive into sundry short story collections and journals like Tin House. I'm slowly making my way through the "Fantastic Women" issue (volume 9, number 1), and one particularly juicy nugget has grabbed me by the nose hair thus far.

The story is simply titled, "Abroad," and it's written by Judy Budnitz. I read this story a week or so ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since, wondering exactly how I should post, how much I should say, and how to summarize such a wonderfully bizarre and affecting story. So here we go...

It's about a woman and her husband traveling abroad (betcha couldn't guess, eh?). The couple gets off their train at the wrong stop and discovers that another train won't be along for three days, so they must somehow entertain themselves in a strange country until they find their way to the proper destination. They visit a church made from bones, a cemetery, they bounce through the streets from restaurants to shops, the locals pointing them to McDonald's all the way.

In the beginning, both husband and wife refer to the locals as "they," "those people," but over the course of the story something shifts. The wife stays separate from the locals distanced by custom, culture and practice. However, her husband begins to embrace the lifestyle, the language, and eventually everything melts into a confusing blur as the wife can no longer speak to her husband or understand the native tongue he's so adept at speaking. All she can do is watch as he parties with the locals, brings them round to the hotel room, asks them to stay, and they eventually take over the wife's surroundings completely putting their clothing in the wife's suitcase, making beds on the floor, and infiltrating the couple's life completely.

Budnitz's story is surreal and poignant. A whirl of language and confusion and loss. I actually sort of felt the urge to cry at the end of the story as the wife--while quite shallow and unwilling to stretch herself culturally--is unable to reach her husband both literally and figuratively. The symbolic growing apart of this couple was just heartbreaking to me perhaps because it was compressed so deftly into three days and those days into 12 pages.

"Abroad" really is a testament to the power in a writer's pen as she so artistically expresses the distance and misunderstandings that can crop up between loved ones if someone doesn't make an over effort to communicate--"build a bridge" for lack of a better expression. I only hope I can express complicated emotions and relationships in such clever ways one day in my own writing. In the meantime, "Abroad" is a wonderful work to ponder.

The Face in the Target

I have been reading G.K. Chesterton for the Outmoded Authors challenge and enjoying his work. Having read most of the Father Brown stories years ago, I decided instead on The Man Who Knew Too Much, a series of short stories about Horne Fisher, who can always see the bigger picture. In the first story in the collection, "The Face in the Target", we meet Fisher through the eyes of Harold March, who subsequently becomes his friend. March is on his way to a meeting at Torwood Park, when he and Fisher both witness a car come crashing off an overhanging rock – accident? suicide? There seems to be no apparent reason for it. Fisher quickly deduces that the car crash was no accident, but that the driver – a retired High Court judge - had been shot, and sets a trap which forces the murderer to reveal himself. However, having established that person's identity, Fisher fails to act; the police have already announced that the crash was accidental and Fisher knows that the murder has been based on such a clever and elaborate deception that not only will a true account never be believed, but that the outcome will have disastrous repercussions for too many people.

While Chesterton's stories are dense with information, it is always conveyed with clarity and economy. Fisher's easy flow of erudite conversation quickly establishes his own character, at the same time as he creates deft summaries of the incidental people in the story. Unlike the unassuming Father Brown, Fisher is a man about town and raconteur, with a degree of sharpness and even cynicism about him, which lends the stories a lightness of touch, while a series in which the malefactor routinely escapes justice makes an interesting contrast with the usual run of crime fiction. I'm not sure I was convinced that Fisher's reasons for remaining quiet about the murderer's identity entirely convince me, but I don't think the stories have enough depth to make me seriously consider whether my response to the dilemma should be different. Not a serious challenge to one's moral code, then, but a fun read, nonetheless.

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

Sunday, January 20, 2008

John Mutford's 3rd Short Story Pick- Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

(Cross posted at The Book Mine Set)
A couple Short Story Mondays ago, Nessie commented that she hadn't read many short stories and asked if I had a top ten essentials lists. I was flattered to have been asked. She then went on to say that she had read Flannery O'Connor and I think the assumption was that someone of O'Connor's stature was a given. I was deflated. I can't be much of a short story aficionado without having read any Flannery O'Connor, right? But we've had such discussions around these parts before and I think we can all agree, it's better to just fill such gaping holes than to whine about our ever-growing TBR piles.

All this, of course, leads me to this week's story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." I had no idea what to expect going into it, but I'm somewhat glad I didn't. If you're as in the dark about O'Connor as I was, perhaps you should go read the story now and return here afterwards.

I really appreciated O'Connor's camaraderie as a story teller. She seemed to acknowledge my expectations and delivered them, yet almost miraculously I wouldn't say it's a predictable story. People behave almost like cliches: the meddling grandmother, the bratty kids, troubled villain, etc. Foreshadowing leads exactly where it told you it would. And it would all be quite annoying if not for feeling like a parable, in which case such formalities are almost necessary.

Like all parables, there's something to consider at the end. My impression was that it was meant to be a Christian message of forgiveness. As I went through the story forgiving the grandmother for her flaws, it pales in comparison to the forgiveness implicit in the grandmother's final statement. Yes, I saw a bit of a supernatural element in the ending, but thankfully it's open to a lot of interpretation. I had to go online and see what others had to say.

Plenty. Whereas I was thankful for the multiple possibilities, the ending has been quite troublesome for many scholars and rife with debate. It turns out that even despite O'Connor's declaration that it was indeed a parable (not that different from the message I read) people still argue about it. One of those in disagreement with the author herself was Stephen C. Bandy who calls upon an adage of D.H. Lawrence to "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." I enjoyed his article but when he concludes that "to insist at this moment of mutual revelation [referring to the grandmother's last words] that [she] is transformed into the agent of God's grace is to do serious violence to the story" I am not convinced. The bulk of Bandy's argument seems to tear down the character of the grandmother in an attempt to prove she does not provide an adequate balance to the evil of "the misfit" to allow O'Connor's intentions be taken seriously. In fact, he pushes it further by saying that the grandmother is more like the villain than O'Connor would ever admit. Bandy does seem to enjoy the story (writing off those final words as further proof of the grandmother's selfishness), but not the author's own interpretation.

Without having read O'Connor's full essay I can't say fully whether I agree with her or not. I can certainly relate to Bandy finding meaning in writing (especially poetry) that was not intended, but I don't think I'd ever be as bold as to say the author was wrong. I've always had the view that reading is far too personal for a single explanation. In this case, I don't necessarily see the grandmother as having redeemed herself spiritually. In fact I'm not convinced she was even herself at the end. I agree that she wasn't a polar opposite of the villain, but I think that was the point. As a sliding scale, O'Connor asks how far we can push our forgiveness. I think the "good man" to which the title refers is Jesus, who O'Connor suggests, forgives all. So what if I can, as a reader, forgive the trespasses of the grandmother. If I really wanted to test myself, I should try forgiving the Misfit. And did the grandmother really forgive him or was it Jesus speaking through her? This is my reading: not that she was the agent of God's grace, but the channel.

Regardless of your religious orientation, this is a great story. You may not agree with O'Connor, Bandy, or me (gasp!), but I'm sure it'll make you think.

The soundtrack:
1. A Good Man Is Hard To Find- Tom Waits
2. The Good In Everyone- Sloan
3. Shines Right Through- Great Big Sea
4. Forgive Them Father- Lauryn Hill
5. Jesus Christ Pose- Soundgarden
(If you write Short Story Monday posts, please leave a link at my blog!)

An Author's Nightmare

Although I am a great fan of mysteries I haven't ever really been compelled to read any short story collections by mystery writers. Of course after reading so many ghost stories last fall I'm not sure why I've avoided them. Recently I mooched a copy of Ruth Rendell's Piranha to Scurfy and Other Short Stories. Ruth Rendell, who also writes under the name of Barbara Vine, has been a great favorite of mine for a long time. Sam H. is also a fan and after reading his post last week on Rendell, it prompted me to read one of her stories as well.

I chose the title story of the collection, "Piranha to Scurfy". Strange title, but it does make sense as you are reading the story. Ambrose Ribbon is an author's nightmare. He sees himself as a sort of self-styled 'literary critic'. He's seems particularly drawn to thrillers, but he doesn't read to them for the excitement of the story. He's less interested in what an author does right than what he does wrong. The story opens with him visiting several bookstores buying the latest 'big seller' as well as books just coming out in paper. He'll read the new books through searching for errors in grammar and syntax noting them down as later he'll send the author and the author's publisher a scathing letter enumerating all the book's faults. Occasionally he'll get letter back with promises the errors will be fixed. Not one to take the author on his word, he searches those new paperbacks for the corrections.

Odd man, yes? Ambrose, or shall I say Ribbon, as he prefers to be known, is a total fusspot, which won't surprise you. I'd say Mummy, a rather harassing woman, had a good hand in making him the way he is. He and his mother lived alone after the early death of his father who generously left them royalties from textbooks he wrote. They led a quiet life amongst their books. Rooms and rooms full of bookcases full of books. Nearly all the wall space is covered with them. Recently his mother passed away, but middle aged Ribbon continues on with his 'work'.

His latest annoyance is a wildly popular thriller with overtones of the occult, which the newspapers declare 'will have readers fainting with fear before page 10'. Notebook in hand he begins to read. While he finds the quality poor and the grammar disparaging, he also finds himself so sucked in that he can't stop reading. And the newspapers were right--it is terrifying. This doesn't stop him typing up his letter to the author and sharing his criticisms. It's not long before things start happening, or is he just imagining it?

The story is fairly long, over 70 pages, so more of a novella really. Rendell takes her time to set the scene and build the story. She's always been good at atmosphere and especially creating memorable and interesting characters. Ribbon is a wonderful, or I should say wonderfully annoying character. There's a great little ironic twist at the end. It isn't a completely unpredictable story, but I found it an enjoyable read. I'll have to keep my eye out for more of these types of story collections now.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Company of Men

"The Company of Men" by Jan Ellison is a short story about a trio that spent some time together in Australia and how that relationship and time together impacted one of their lives.

For a few years I had in my possession two rain slickers that smelled of whiskey and cigarettes and aftershave. ... Then when I was about to be married and I wanted to be rid of so many failings, so many unhelpful habits and longings, when I believed the past could no longer inform me, I threw the slickers into the Goodwill pile and lost them forever. Now what was left is a single photo I return to now and then, of two young men in bright red coats hitchhiking under a darkened sky.

During her travels alone after graduating from college, Catherine meets two men in a New Zeeland bar. Ray and Jimmy are backpacking through New Zeeland and Australia, and all three have their personal reasons for their escapes from home after college. They spend a brief evening of drinking before Catherine hops a bus to Sydney for the next part of her trek. While in Sydney, she runs into the two men once again and the trio begin a brief and intense relationship based on alcohol, stories, and their own brand of friendship.

I'd been listening to Ray with my elbows up on the bar and my chin in my hand, with the intensity that can come over you when you've had a lot to drink. His story seemed strange and sad and unforgettable. While Ray talked, Jimmy kept the drinks coming and he let the back of his hand fall against my arm on the bar. He let his thigh rub against my knee beneath it. This seemed to be the arrangement. With the drinks and the roving hands and the sweet eyes and the good looks, Jimmy's role was to draw people to the two of them, and Ray's --- with his stories and his mournful eyes --- was to keep them there.

Catherine reminisces about this time in her life while remembering the loss of her father and also while thinking of her more current life as a wife and mother. The blending of these memories make for an interesting view on Catherine's personal search for love and her place in life.

It was not that I wanted the entrapments that come along with love, or that I would promise to offer it in return. It was that I believed that once a man knew me, he would see how different I was from an everyday girl --- how forthright and clever and secretly kind --- and he would find me indispensable.

Although Catherine feels that the past can no longer inform her as she disposes of the rain slickers, she still reviews that past and sees how it helped shape the person that she has now become.

As I walked, I thought about them hard --- Jimmy and Ray --- going over each episode in my mind, weighing and measuring, considering cause and effect. Not in an effort to shed the loss but to savor it, to shape it, to give it permanence.

I very much enjoyed this short story and found myself caught up in the characters and their time together in Sydney. The friendship between the trio had me thinking about some of the friendships that I have had over my lifetime, especially those in my young adult years. Our journey in life is shaped by many encounters both big and small; but I feel that it is the brief and intense encounters that often bring the most meaning and often the best lessons learned.

"The Company of Men" by Jan Ellison from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

Diane's Read List

I have not read many short stories in the past. Thus is my reason for participating in The Short Story Reading Challenge. I recently purchased two collections for this endeavour: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 (ed. by Laura Furman) and The Best American Short Stories 2007 (ed. by Stephan King). I figured this way I would have the best of the best to begin my new adventure.

I am choosing to read ten short stories (or more) over the course of the challenge. I am not making a specific reading list because I would like to explore both collections and discover new authors and their works.

I am very excited about this challenge and how it will expand and enhance what I currently read.

Friday, January 18, 2008

BiblioShort: Rhoda

My own grandmother is a "schwartze" (the German word for a 'black' person), but the old, immigrant woman in Jonathan Safran Foer's "Rhoda" sounded so much like my grandmother that the scene Foer paints literally came alive before my eyes. The scene before us in "Rhoda" is of a dying grandmother being interviewed by her grandson. Ostensibly, we learn that he is recording her story as his way of documenting her life before she passes away.

Rhoda is, as she tells her grandson, an immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950's, saw a "schwartze" for the first time ("I got off the boat, and I'm holding your mother, and your grandfather, your real grandfather, was looking for our bags, and the first person I saw was a schwartze. I thought maybe he had a disease. What did I know from schwartzes?"), opened a grocery store in a poor neighborhood, and, somewhere along way, eventually developed a heart problem.

But it wasn't Rhoda's story that intrigued me so much as her vivid voice. It's so strong; I could hear her talking in my ear, as if I really was listening to a recording:

It's good to see you, from what my eyes can make out. You could be a super-model! It brings a smile to my heart. Your brother is growing a bosom, but you still have all of your hair. Lemme touch it. That beautiful, thick hair. You're so handsome! So gorgeous! My joy! It doesn't matter. You should be healthy. That beautiful Kennedy hair. Enjoy your hair and good health.

Have a drink. Lemme get you a soda from the basement. Go get a soda from the basement. Drink something. Please. For me. I have some orange juice in the freezer. I could warm it up for you... You're gorgeous, I'm telling you. Just looking at you, I'm forgetting everything. I got a tea bag I used last night that's still good...

That beaming pride in your youth and health ("So gorgeous!), that almost brutal honesty ("Your brother is growing a bosom..."), that slightly servile attitude ("Lemme get you a soda from the basement.") coupled with the bossiness of being an elder ("Go get a soda from the basement.") - I've heard it all before. Even the reluctant acceptance of the new while clinging to the old ("It was his life, and that's why I didn't say anything, but it was my death. You can fall in love with anyone if you have to, so why mix blood?) - I've heard that too.

This extremely short story (3 pages) is so well composed that, although I know this is someone Foer made up, I also know this is a woman who exists somewhere. I know, because I see pieces of her in my own grandmother. I know, because I see pieces of her in some of the other older women I've had the pleasure of meeting over the years. This story was a pleasure to read, and an excellent introduction to THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE edited by Zadie Smith.

"Rhoda" by Jonathan Safran Foer, from THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE ed. by Zadie Smith.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Vasilly's picks

Hi, everyone. My name is Vasilly and here's my picks for this challenge.
1. My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead - Jeffrey Eugenides, editor.
2. The book of other people - Zadie Smith, editor.
3. Cheating at Canasta - William Trevor
4. Breathing Underwater - Julie Orringer
5. I am no one you know - Joyce Carol Oates
a maybe: A Good man is hard to find - Flannery O'Connor

Washington Irving's Two Tales

Irving, Washington. Two Tales: Rip Van Wrinkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Illustrated by Barry Moser.

Perhaps I should be slightly embarrassed to admit this, but this was my first time actually reading both of these stories. My only familiarity with the stories coming through Wishbone in the first instance and a cartoon in the second. (I want to say Disney but I could be wrong.) So why now? It worked with three challenges: The A ~ Z Challenge, the By the Decades Challenge, and the Short Story Challenge. Those aren't great reasons to read a classic, but in all honesty, they were sufficient to motivate me at the library.

My impression of the book? Well, I enjoyed them both more than I thought I would. But that isn't necessarily saying much. The language is a bit archaic. Not desperately archaic. But without being *updated* I don't see many kids being able to read it smoothly. Even as a somewhat well-read, somewhat well-educated adult, there were words that in all honesty I had NO idea what they meant. And I would assume that like most readers, I was just too lazy to get up and get a dictionary so I just skimmed over them like they weren't even there. (To my credit, 11 at night isn't the best time to get up and go in search of a dictionary.) But I got the *main* ideas of both stories.

The first being a tale of a lazy man with a nagging wife falls into a magical sleep that does him not much practical good but at least rids him of his wife. I can't help but feel for the wife. ANY woman would get annoyed with a man who was THAT lazy and irresponsible. And doubly annoyed that he could at times be helpful to other families, other women, but ignored his own. So this tale doesn't really have a *moral* per se that would prove beneficial. Rip Van Wrinkle was lazy; he was happy to be lazy; he taught his son to be lazy; he liked being waited on hand and foot and the magical sleep just made that happen without the nagging.

The second being a tale of a rather comical school teacher, Ichabod Crane. Ichabod was a school teacher, a singing teacher, and a rather unsuccessful wooer. He wanted to win the heart of a lovely lady. But his competition was, well, the competition got the best of him in the end. Brom Bones. Practical joker extraordinaire. It was an entertaining story about a man who let himself be *scared* out of what he wanted. Can I blame him? Not really. Being chased by a "headless" man and then having aforementioned head tossed at him....would scare me out of town as well.

Overall, both stories were okay. But the artwork of Barry Moser just didn't do much for me. It seemed to date the book. It was originally published in 1984, and the book just looks and feels and smells dated. But in its defense, it was on the shelves while the newer versions of both tales (with better illustrations perhaps) were not. So it served its purpose.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bridget's List

OK, I have a list that will likely be the one I complete, or stick with most of the time (it was hard for me to choose!). I'm going with Option 5 also:

This is the custom option under the rubric of which you can tailor your reading list to best meet your personal reading aspirations. You might wish to craft a list that focuses on a particular place, or era, or genre. Or you might wish to include reading about short stories as well as of short stories, for example, such works as Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. It’s entirely up to you.

So here we go:

1. Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty - I chose this because it is one of my very favorite short stories, and I haven't read it for years, so I thought it was time to get reacquainted.

2. In Sunshine Or In Shadow : Stories by Irish Women - I had planned to read this for another challenge, but got sidetracked by a different book, so this challenge seemed like an even better match!

3. Strange Pilgrims, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I've had this for a while, but seeing someone else mention it reminded me that I wanted to read it.

4. The Art of the Short Story, by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn - I have read a couple of reviews of this, and it sounds like a good, basic introduction to short stories from writers of all kinds. Since my short story experience is pretty hit-and-miss, I thought it would be good to include one book with a variety of authors.

Time to get started ...

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Some books feel like friends from the very beginning. Such is the case with Isaac Asimov's novel, Foundation. This book was originally the first in a series of Foundation novels. (However, Prelude to Foundation has since been published.) The novel is composed of five sections. Four of these sections were originally published separately and appeared as short stories in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1944. They were later compiled together into one volume in 1951 alongside a newly written introduction section, and thus Foundation as we know now it was published. (Does any of that matter? Not really. I didn't read the details on the publishing history until after I read it. But as an after note, I was intrigued by it. So I thought I'd share it with you.)

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire had ruled supreme. Now it was dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, could see into the future--a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that would last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathered the best minds in the Empire--both scientists and scholars--and brought them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for future generations. He called his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation found itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope was faced with an agonizing choice: Submit to the barbarians and be overrun--or fight them and be destroyed.

What can I say about Foundation without giving too much away? It is one of those rare books where it's best not to know. Best not to have preconceived notions of what it's all about. Best not to think too much about what it's saying and where it's going. It's best to just go along for the ride on this one.

The settings? Various planets. The characters? Too many to list. The plot? Complex but not difficult to follow. Each section of the book is separate from the whole. Most are divided by time. Between sections, thirty years, eighty years, fifty years, a hundred years could have passed. The reader picks up hints here and there about how much time has gone by. But this isn't a book where you follow characters around. This is more of a novel where ideas play the leading role.

If there is a cohesive theme to the novel it is manipulation. Whether passive or aggressive, Foundation is all about power struggles, manipulations, and getting others to do what you want when you want. It is all about ambition.

Do not look at this chart unless you want to confuse yourself. (Or you've read a good many of the books already.) For plot summary of the first novel, click here. For more information on the series as a whole, click here.

Completed My First Short Story Collection for the Challenge

(I received this book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program. The book that I received has a different cover, which I like better.)

Let me preface this by saying that I don't read very many short story collections. That is one of the reasons that I decided to join this challenge -- to broaden my reading horizons. So, I didn't really know what to expect from this book. However, I knew from the very first story that I was going to enjoy this book. I especially like the way that the author loosely ties all of the stories together using the title character, Olive Kitteridge. This allows the reader the opportunity to see how differently people perceive themselves and others. The stories also progress over time. In the first story, Olive is a working mother, and in the last several stories, she is in her 70s and has lost her husband.

Though Olive is featured in each of the stories, she is featured more prominently in some, and these turn out to be my favorite stories. It would be difficult for me to pick a favorite story, but I think "Security" would have to be one of my favorites. In this story, Olive goes to visit her only son and his pregnant wife in New York. Olive feels very out of place and is devastated to learn that Christopher has issues with her and the way he was raised. The visit ends with Olive and Christopher having an argument and Olive leaving earlier than planned.

It's true that on the surface Olive seems to be an unpleasant person who speaks her mind without regard for the feelings of others. However, I think that the author does a good job of showing the complexities of this character. I feel like much of her brusqueness comes from insecurities. But for all of her rudeness and harshness, she does show kindness in unexpected ways.

Overall, this is a really great book of stories, which are loosely connected by the character of Olive Kitteridge. I would highly recommend it. Thanks LT for this early reviewers program!

Gautami's read list

I have a lot of short story collections. I will make a list here:

Collected stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafta

The Best Short Sories by Rudyard Kipling

Collected Stories of Guy de Maupassant

Murder in the Menu Edited by Peter Haining

Twelve Read Herrings by Jeffrey Archer

The Raven and other writings by Edgar Allan Poe

Collected Ghost Stories

The Frankenstein Omnibus Edited by Peter Haining

Literary Feline's Thoughts on Breathless in Bombay, a Short Story Collection

Breathless in Bombay by Murzban F. Shroff
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008 (ARE)
Fiction (short stories); 306 pgs

Author Murzban F. Shroff attempts to capture the dichotomy of Bombay, both the beauty and the ugliness, and he succeeds. Fourteen short stories offer a glimpse into the cultures and lives of every day people in Bombay, from the rich to the working class to the poor.

Often my biggest complaint about short stories is reaching the end and wondering, "That's it?" That was not the case with Murzban F. Shroff's collection of stories. Each story stood on solid ground, the characters well developed in their complexities and lifestyles and the stories quickly and effectively established. There was not one story that I did not like, each a stand out in its own way. The fourteen stories that made up the collection were varied, some dark and sad while others more hopeful. Each of them was about the struggles of survival in a city where people flocked to for a better life and fought to survive in at the darkest of times.

Among my favorites was the story of Chacha Sawari and his horse Badshah in The Queen Guards Her Own. Chacha was a man who took pride in his work and loved his horse. He did not have much in the later years of his life, and yet he made the best of it, always looking out for Badshah. Even amidst the poverty and prejudice of the wealthy, Chacha remained hopeful. Then there was the story, The Great Divide, about an elderly woman and her husband who had taken in a servant. A recent rash of murders of elderly by their servants set Mrs. Mullafiroze on edge and she feared for her own life and that of her husband. A Different Behl and This House of Mine demonstrated the depth of good friendships while Jamal Hoddi's Revenge showed a man with nothing to lose in his darkest hour. There was a story of love lost in Traffic, and love found in Breathless in Bombay, the final story of the book.

Murzban did not hesitate to paint a colorful picture of Bombay throughout his stories, including the warts of the disparity between the poor and the wealthy, prejudice, the clash of tradition and progress, as well as the corruption and greed. And yet, woven within the stories was also hope, the love of family and the power of friendship and community. Breathless in Bombay took me right onto the streets of Bombay and into the lives of the various characters. (Originally published at Musings of a Bookish Kitty)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Andi's List

I love short stories, and I can't say that I've always had a great affection for them. For the longest time--as a direct result of forced reading in school I suspect--I wanted little to do with short stories in my free time. When I sat down to read and slip into another world, I yearned for a prolonged trip into an extensive literary adventure. Short stories always struck me as literary rejects...plots that failed to blossom into the end-all and be-all of readerly wonderment...the novel.

A few years ago when, as a Master's student, school took over my life completely, I found myself longing to read but wielding the attention span of a gnat. As a result, I turned to the short story with the utmost suspicion but an undeniable need to read something...anything. Once I finally dove into a collection or two, my affinity for the genre began to grow by leaps and bounds, and now I find myself a complete convert. I read short stories often and with vigor. Two wonderful short story collections, No One Belongs Here More Than You and The Secret Lives of People in Love, both made it to my Top 10 for 2007--something I never would've suspected a few years ago.

When I got wind of Kate's Short Story Reading Challenge, my ears perked up, my eyes got shifty, and I started mentally flipping through the available short story collections hiding in the corners of my "to be read" stack. Kate has laid out several options for completing the challenge, and I've decided to go with option 5:

Option 5: This is the custom option under the rubric of which you can tailor your reading list to best meet your personal reading aspirations. You might wish to craft a list that focuses on a particular place, or era, or genre. Or you might wish to include reading about short stories as well as of short stories, for example, such works as Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. It’s entirely up to you.

I've decided to tackle four unread collections from my stacks, one collection that I don't own yet but that I've had my eye on, and a smattering of selections from other sources like the "Best of" collections and literary journals like Tin House, The Golden Handcuffs Review, and Swink (all of which are on my nightstand right now). I'll deem a smattering at least 5 stories worth discussing.

Without further ado....the list of books:

1. The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
2. I Am No One You Know, by Joyce Carol Oates
3. Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt
4. Demonology, by Rick Moody
5. Like You'd Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard

I'll also toss the following collections into the ring as alternates:

20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill (don't own)
Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx (do own)

I have to thank Kate for coming up with such a wonderful challenge. I'm SO EXCITED! I'll keep you all posted on my progress.

John Mutford's 2nd Short Story Pick- Mark Antony Jarman's "The Cougar"

(Cross posted at The Book Mine Set)

Mark Jarman was recently recommended to me.

Fortunately I was able to find one of his short stories online: "The Cougar" (and it's about an actual cougar, not Demi Moore or Kylie Minogue).

It took me a few paragraphs to warm to this story. It's filled with sentence fragments alongside run-on sentences, slang words, and pop-culture references. It smacked of someone trying too hard to be cool. Actually, I thought he was trying to be a modern-day Canadian beatnik.

"Then in the woods a sleek cougar nearly takes my head off, but I said ix-nay."

Before long I began to appreciate it. While the voice doesn't come across as belonging to someone I'd necessarily like or have much in common with, it fit the narrator's character. I'm curious about Jarman's other stories-- are they all written in the same sort of voice? If so, the fact that it worked so well this particular time around was but a lucky coincidence. Or are they all written in different voices unique to the particular protagonist? If so, it's impressive that Jarman goes beyond simply using character appropriate vocabulary and makes even style (i.e., sentence fragments) a part of the vernacular. Jarman has piqued my interest in his other stories, for sure.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mary Lavin's "The Will"

Mary Lavin was said to have felt that "The Will", the story I read this weekend, was "the finest expression of her art". The story is from a collection called In a Cafe, which was compiled by her daughter. Lavin was an Irish author, born in 1912. Her stories were published in quite a few collections as well as in a variety of magazines such as Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. I am always pleased when a publisher takes the time to ask someone knowledgeable to write a foreword for a book like this. Usually I can glean some interesting information about the author or their motivation for writing a story. I know a story should be able to stand on its own without any additional information about the writer, but I'm always curious to know just a little bit more.

In this case the foreword writer, Thomas Kilroy, was a friend of Lavin's and it seems as though Lavin was something of a mentor to him. Writers she impressed upon him as being important or influential to her included Turgenev, Flaubert and Tolstoy. He writes that "this (Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata), she had told me, was a story that had profoundly influenced her when she had first started to write". I'll have to add that one to my list. Although I've only read the one story, Kilroy makes me want to read more.

"The stories are always about a family, although the name, Conroy, Grimes, Becker, may change from fiction to fiction. The recurrent antagonism is that between a conniving, cold pursuit of material prosperity on the one hand and a flame-like spirit of passion on the other. The typical battlefield exists between sisters. In the language of the stories, one side is associated with darkness and heavy, clumsy movement, the other with mobility, adventuresomeness, even to the point of destruction. What these stories unveil is the mysterious, deadly antagonism in the world towards creatures of light and air, like Lally Conroy in 'The Will'."

Lolly Conroy has returned home for her mother's funeral. Lolly has made her home in Dublin to the shock and disappointment of her family, though you don't catch on to this at first. What is readily apparent is that her mother has left Lolly out of her will. Her sisters and brother try to convince her to accept a portion of their money from their mother's will, unhappy and surprised that she has been so noticeably forgotten. Slowly, through the sibling's dialogue it is revealed why Lolly has been left out of the will.

"I had two little blue feathers in my hat the morning I went into her room to tell her I was getting married. I had nothing new to wear but my old green silk costume, and my old green hat, but I bought two little pale blue feathers and pinned them on the front of the hat. I think the feathers upset her more than going against her wishes. She kept staring at them all the time I was in the room, and even when she ordered me to get out of her sight it was at the feathers in my hat she was staring and not at me."

It becomes obvious that Lolly has chosen to marry down in the world and has led a life of near poverty in the city. You get the impression that perhaps her husband is dead, or worse in jail. What starts out as a sad but amiable family gathering soon spirals into accusation throwing and truth telling. Lolly runs a boarding house and can barely scrape by, which is a great embarrassment to the family. As a matter of fact, it turns out that her even being there is an embarrassment. She's shabby in appearance, and even the parish priest didn't know who she was. Lolly doesn't seem to mind or see her situation as any kind of humiliation. Offers of money or suggestions to turn her boarding house into a reputable hotel are declined. Lavin does a remarkable job of telling Lolly's story through one small family scene, through the eyes of her family as well as her own. Ultimately it will be obvious who has the true christian spirit of forgiveness in the Conroy family and maybe even who has the richer character. Lavin is an excellent storyteller.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom

blindman.jpgI just read my first collection for the challenge, and it was beautiful! First off, isn't that cover gorgeous?! Might not be the best one to read on the public bus, though-my mom saw it and got the wrong impression. hehe While these stories definitely aren't erotica, several of them do focus on sexuality, and the myriad forms that it comes in. Most of my reading is heterosexual-centric, so it was refreshing to read a collection that includes trans-gendered and homosexual characters as well! The title story focuses on a mother who, when she realises that her little girl wants to be a boy, decides to go about fulfilling that wish to the best of her abilities. Bloom's prose really creeps up on you; its beauty seems to obscure some of the emotional content until all of a sudden you find yourself laughing and crying along with the characters.

In addition to sexuality, Bloom likes to focus on loss. In "Stars at Elbow and Foot," the main character has just lost her baby; then, in the following story entitled "Hold Tight," we have the reverse of a teenage girl losing her mother. Both of these are exquisitely rendered. Really, the entire collection is about love: maternal love, friendly love, sexual love, and how sometimes they can get all mixed up. In the center are two stories focusing on the same characters-Lionel and Julia. What makes it interesting is that the first story ("Night Vision") is told entirely from Lionel's point of view, so the reader meets the people in his life through his eyes. Then, in "Light Into Dark" we suddenly see Lionel as these others see him, and it's just fascinating to see the differences! Bloom's prose is consistently stunning. Take this passage from "Rowing to Eden," a story about Mai, a middle-aged beauty who's going through treatment for breast cancer, her husband Charley, and her best friend since college (and a lesbian) Ellie
It seems to Mai that even her subconscious has lost its subtlety. Mais is famous for her subtle humour, her subtle beauty, her subtle understanding of the Bronte sisters, of nineteenth-century England, of academic politics and the art of tenure, which she got at thirty. Now she feels as subtle as Oprah and not even as quick.

That's Bloom being delicate; she also knows how to be raw, as in the thoughts of the narrator of "The Story":
The story I began to write would have skewered her, of course. Anyone who knew her would have read it and known it was she and thought badly of her while reading. She would have been embarassed and angry. That really is not what I have in mind. I want her skin like a rug on my floor, warm throat slit, heart still beating behind the newly bricked-up wall.

There isn't really a weak point in this collection; the only thing I wish is that it was longer (it's only eight stories and weighs in at 163 pages). If you love stories that focus on characters and emotions, rather than plot, and if you eat up beautiful writing, you will definitely want to own this book. And if not, well, this book just might change your mind!

The Poetry & Short Stories of Dorothy Parker

The minute I joined the Short Story Reading Challenge, I knew I wanted to read some Dorothy Parker. My introduction to Parker came in college in a literature class. We were assigned at various points two short stories. One was "Telephone Call" and the second was "The Waltz." These two remain my favorite of the ones I've read, but I would still recommend this whole collection. It contains 24 short stories by Dorothy Parker. These stories were originally published in 1939 under the title Here Lies.

What I love about Parker is how she portrays humanity--the good, the bad, the ugly. She captures nuances of humanity both personal and social. (Whether she's documenting the tortured, lonely soul or capturing the hidden layers of a relationship between two friends or two lovers or even the strain of family life.) The stories often contain commentary on social aspects of life--race, class, sex, etc.

Short stories include: "Arrangement in Black and White," "The Sexes," "The Wonderful Old Gentleman," "A Telephone Call," "Here We Are," "Lady With A Lamp," "Too Bad," "Mr. Durant," "Just A Little One," "Horsie," "Clothe the Naked," "The Waltz," "Little Curtis," "The Little Hours," "Big Blonde," "From the Diary of A New York Lady," "Soldiers of the Republic," "Dusk Before Fireworks," "New York to Detroit," "Glory in the Daytime," "The Last Tea," "Sentiment," "You Were Perfectly Fine," and "The Custard Heart."

I know I can't possibly hope to capture my reaction to all of the stories. I would have had to have been taking notes as I read each one. But I hope I can convey how much I appreciated the humanity, the attention to detail, the characterization. All the little things that added up to make each story work as a whole.

Here's how The Wonderful Old Gentleman begins, "If the Bains had striven for years, they could have been no more successful in making their living room into a small but admirably complete museum of objects suggesting strain, discomfort, or the tomb." (p. 241) Isn't that a great way to start a story? Isn't that a great hook? It continues a paragraph later, "It was as if they had all been selected by a single enthusiast to whom time was but little object, so long as he could achieve the eventual result of transforming the Bain living room into a home chamber of horrors, modified a bit for family use."

And here's the frantic but memorable beginning to "A Telephone Call," "Please, God let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won't ask anything else of You, truly I won't. It isn't very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please." (254)

And perhaps my favorite, "The Waltz." "Why thank you so much. I'd adore to. I don't want to dance with him. I don't want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn't be him. He'd be well down among the last ten. I've seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night. Just think, not a quarter of an hour ago, here I was sitting, feeling so sorry for the poor girl he was dancing with. And now I'm going to be the poor girl. Well, well. Isn't it a small world." (335)

The way she uses language (or she used language as the case may be) is such that it captures a time, a place, a feeling. It is like a photograph of the soul. Capturing the insanity, the loneliness, the confusion, the hope, whatever the feeling--whatever the situation. She's got it captured authentically in print.