Friday, August 29, 2008

Stories by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de MaupassantImage via Wikipedia If Guy de Maupassant lived and wrote stories or novels today, his name would appear on The New York Times best-seller lists many weeks out of a year.

As it was, in the late 1800s, his stories were best-sellers from the time the first one, “Boule de Suif,” appeared in a collection with five other previously unknown authors, until he died, mentally ill, at the young age of 42 in 1893.

Maupassant’s stories are beautifully written. Maupassant’s writing style is concise, and he relies on dialogue, so his stories move quickly. He captures the essence of the setting in few words and makes it complete.

But that’s not all that made him a best-seller. Maupassant wrote with under-lying carnal desires in mind. In other words, he wrote about sex, greed, love, misunderstandings, and lying, among other things. The characters in his stories care most about themselves. What makes his stories resonate with the modern reader is the attraction to our own natural wants.

His stories capture greed (a woman wanting to look elegant for a party, no matter the cost; a man in need of money selling his wife; a parent in need of money selling his child; etc.), self-interest (a young man escaping from his pregnant girlfriend; society shunning prostitutes while yet accepting them; a family having the funeral before the loved one died for convenience), desire for power (a man lusting after a woman; a man trying to politically overtake a city), and so forth.

For a specific example, in “The Devil,” Maupassant captures our natural impatience. The son of a dying woman needs to plant his crop, so he hires a peasant woman to sit with his dying mother. But as the hired woman has been hired for a set pay, she doesn’t feel like waiting for the woman to die. I won’t tell you how this is resolved, but I will tell you I laughed out loud, horrid as it was! Humans are impatient by nature, and Maupassant wonderfully captured us.

I’ve now read between 80 and 100 stories (probably about 400 pages, skipping around the huge volume of Maupassant’s complete stories that I have). I think I’ve had a good taste of Maupassant’s great stories. I’m sure there are other great ones out there. Tell me if I missed your favorite! (Links below are to the stories on the web; all are in the public domain.)

Stories I Would Reread

  • The Necklace: A middle-class woman really wants to look nice at a social gathering so she borrows a diamond necklace from her friend….and loses it.
  • The Piece of String: A stingy man finds a piece of string in the middle of the town square and stops to pick it up, changing his life.
  • The False Gems: When his beloved wife dies, the man eventually must sell her cherished-but-false jewels.
  • The Horla: An invisible creature follows a man, driving him crazy.
  • Was it a Dream?: A man’s beloved wife died, and he morns over her grave, only to be “haunted.”
  • The Father: A man abandons his girlfriend once she becomes pregnant; only later does he realize what that meant for him.
  • The Devil: A peasant woman is hired to sit with a dying woman and gets impatient for her to die.
  • A Sale: Why did he dump his wife in a barrel of water? The judge wants to know.
  • Simon’s Papa: Simon doesn’t have a papa, and the boys in the school yard are making fun of him. He is determined to find a papa.
  • Clair de Lune: A priest hates women because they are only temptresses, and nothing good can come from women. And then he learns something.

Other Good Stories

  • Boule de Suif: A group of citizens, including Boule de Suif (a local prostitute), travel in a carriage together during a heavy snowstorm in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war.
  • Yvette: Yvette is the daughter of a high-class prostitute, but she wants to find love and marriage in her life. (I cannot find this online; the Yvette story credited to Maupassant that I find online is different!)
  • Mouche – A Boating Man’s Reminiscence: Mouche is the only woman on the boating crew and they all love her.
  • A Family: A bachelor visits a long-unvisited friend whose life now “disgusts” him (he has a wife and children and certainly must be miserable).
  • Moonlight: A woman has the beginning of an affair.
  • In the Wood: A couple is discovered making love in a forest…
  • The Kiss: An old aunt sends a young girl a letter about why kisses are so important.

In the end, Maupassant’s stories feel modern in writing style and subject matter. Therefore, you may relate to them even though they took place in a setting 100+ years past.

In searching for a recommended translation, I stumbled upon an Amazon reviewer who wasn’t too impressed with Maupassant. He/she says:

The real reason that everyone makes such a big deal about Maupassant is because he mostly wrote about sex. His stories are entertaining but not extraordinary…

He’s right, and he’s wrong. Yes, Maupassant mostly wrote about sex or similar things. But I believe that Maupassant’s writing has a hint of extraordinary. Some stories are simply masterpieces. I guess you could say that Maupassant is the average “Guy.” That helped him become the best-seller he deservedly was.

What are you waiting for? Many Maupassant stories are very short. Read some of his stories online right now (links to specific stories above):

Posted in slightly different form here and here on Rebecca Reads.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An Ex-Mas Feast, by Uwem Akpan - Wendy's Review

The sun had gone down on Ex-mas evening. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls, The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop’s security lights. A board, which served as our door lay by the shop wall. -From An Ex-Mas Feast-

Uwem Akpan released his debut short story collection titled Say You’re One of Them in June 2008. An Ex-Mas Feast is one of the stories in that collection - although I read it as a stand alone story in The New Yorker. Jigana, an eight year old who is the eldest boy of his family, narrates the story. He reveals the horrifying living conditions of a street family who rely on their eldest daughter’s income from prostitution to feed them. Jigana represents hope for his family who want him to go to school and become educated. Most of the story takes place on Christmas Day as the family waits for Maisha to return from her work on the streets. The mother offers her children glue to sniff to stave off hunger and reads aloud the names of relatives in an attempt to celebrate the holiday.

Mama took out our family Bible, which we had inherited from Baba’s father, to begin our Ex-mas worship. The front cover had peeled off, leaving a dirty page full of our relatives’ names, dead and living. She read them out. Baba’s late father had insisted that all the names of our family be included in recognition of the instability of street life. -From An Ex-Mas Feast-

Thematically this short story examines survival, family bonds, and the idea of education as hope to elevate oneself from poverty. It raises questions about global awareness of what is happening to families and children on the streets of Nairobi. When Jigana tells of the rich white men driving a Jaguar who “hire” Maisha for a night of sex, the reader feels stunned by the gap which lies between wealth and poverty.

Akpan’s writing is stark, shocking and painful. The story, narrated by a child, leaves the reader feeling brutalized. Bookmarks Magazine reviewed Akpan’s collection and writes:

Without flinching or lecturing, Akpan shares the almost unimaginable horrors that threaten Africa’s most vulnerable children. A Jesuit priest, he also evokes the love, grace, and other spiritual values that can emerge from the fight for survival. -From Sept/Oct edition (No. 36) of Bookmarks Magazine, page 32-

Although not easy to read, I highly recommend this short story if only to raise awareness of what is happening to children living on the streets in Africa.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Summer, with Twins

Summer, with Twins by Rebecca Curtis tells the story of four waitress who are trying to make their way in life using the circumstances that each has in their individual lives.

At first Dina earned the most money, but soon the twins were each earning double and triple what Dina and I did. Dina didn't seem to notice; she didn't seem to notice much. She was a better waitress than the twins, but the twins had a secret weapon --- their sameness.

The narrator is spending her summer with twins Jean and Jessica. The twins' father is an investment banker and they dream of finishing college and then follow in his footsteps. Dina is a waitress that they meet at the restaurant where they are working for the summer. She is a middle-aged single mother working hard to make ends meet for her two children, one of whom is in the hospital. The narrator finds herself in the middle: not as easy of a life as the rich, spoiled twins yet not as difficult of a life as the struggling mother trying to makes ends meet with her time and money. The twins seem to have whatever they want and need: a nice home, money for college, nice clothes, good looks, and time to relax on the beach or in front of the TV. Dina seems to have very little: no insurance, large hospital bills, old and stained clothes, huge veins on her legs, and little time for her children. Again, the narrator seems to fall in between.

When an opportunity arises to make some easy money, the narrator passes on the offer knowing that it is not the right thing to do. Everyone seems to agree with her decision, but the lesson has her looking at the waitresses in a different light. Why do some people work with so much ease and receive so much more in return without many worries while others work so hard and receive so little in return with worries that never seem to go away?

Summer, with Twins is a story with much to say about the unequal balance of life's circumstances and rewards that is often observed between people. The descriptions are rich and the observations of the narrator are evident and thoughtful. I enjoyed this short story that left two different impressions on me: first, the simple story of one summer when three young, sassy, inexperienced waitresses meet a seasoned, struggling waitress; and second, the layered story of life and its injustices that sometimes seem so hard to understand.

"Summer, with Twins" by Rebecca Curtis (from Harper's Magazine) from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

Friday, August 15, 2008

Completed Challenge - Option 1

Completed the Challenge yesterday by reading my 10th Short story (Option 1).
Have enjoyed reading these stories, and I'm looking forward to reading more short stories in the future ;0)
You can see the stories I read here and you can read their reviews by clicking on the short story challenge label in the side bar.
Will continue reading all your reviews with interest ;0)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bite - Various

A collection of short stories by some of the hottest vampire authors around. Most of them have some very steamy sex scenes and a lot of action.

The Girl who was Infatuated with Death - Laurell K Hamilton
An Anita Blake story set between Blue Moon and Obsidian Butterfly. Anita is called in to investigate a case of a 17 year old girl whose mother finds two vampire bite marks at the top of her inner thighs. In this world vampires are citizens but it is illegal to turn someone under 18 which takes 3 bites. The twist is the girl has bone cancer and becomming a vampire will save her from a leg amputation. Anita goes to see her vampire "friend" Jean Claude and gets sidetracked by his sexiness.

One Word Answer - Charlaine Harris
A tale of Sookie Stackhouse. One night a strange black limo turns up with a strange supernatural man inside. He tells her that her cousin was turned into a vampire and then killed in a cemetary in New Orleans trying to raise the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. The plot twists as it emerges who the real killer was.

Biting in Plain Sight - MaryJanice Davidson
De Sophie Tourneau is a vet and a vampire and seems accepted by the twosnfolk of Embarrass, Minnesota. One man in particular, Liam, has accepted her and has been secretly in love with her for years. He decides to finally tell her as a vampire is causing young girls to seeminly kill themselves. The enlist the help of Queen Betsy on their quest to track him down and kill him.

Galahad - Angela Knight
A mixture of Arthurian and Grail legends with vampires, dragons, witches and hot hot sex! Some very silly ideas, but the sex scenes were amazinginly hot.

Blood Lust - Vickie Taylor
Daniel Hart is a microbiologist who has created synthetic blood when a vampire comes along and steals his research, home, woman and car. He tracks down another vampire, Deadre Rue, to turn him so it can be a fair fight. A few twists along the way.

I loved Galahad but more for the sex than the mythology. I also really enjoyed Blood Lust and Biting in Plain Sight. The Girl who was Infatuated with Death was my least favourite. It had a really good premise, but Hamilton seemed to forget it once Anita met up with Jean Claude sadly.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Worlds That Weren't by Harry Turtledove, et al


"Alternate history is the branch of speculative fiction that explores what might have happened if history had taken a different turn. The obvious changes, like the Nazis winning World War II, have filled innumerable novels. Fortunately, the anthology Worlds That Weren't avoids the obvious with its four fine new novellas from four superior authors: Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams.

The collection opens with "The Daimon," written by Harry Turtledove, AH's best-known practitioner. In Turtledove's turning point, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates chooses to accompany General Alkibiades to war instead of remaining in Athens, and sets Alkibiades on a triumphant, terrible new course.

Set in the British India-dominated alternate history of The Peshawar Lancers, S.M. Stirling's novella is a rousing old-fashioned adventure. "Shikari in Galveston" follows a hunting safari through a regressed American frontier that might have given even Daniel Boone pause.

A prequel to her Book of Ash tetralogy, Mary Gentle's novella "The Logistics of Carthage" concerns Christian warriors serving pagan Turks in a North Africa conquered by Visigoths instead of Vandals, and is the strongest story in Worlds That Weren't.

The collection concludes with "The Last Ride of German Freddie," in which Nebula Award winner Walter Jon Williams considers what might have happened if the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had taken himself and his superman theories to the Wild West." -- from the back cover

My thoughts:

Instead of the typical alternate history of a different victor in a war, or a prevention of an assassination, these stories highlighted gradual and subtle changes in history. I especially liked the stories "Shikari in Galveston" featuring an alternate America still within the British Empire and "German Freddy Rides Again" featuring Nietzche at the OK Corral. Finally, I liked the afterwords to each story which explained how history really happened.

Date read: 6/6/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
(SS) Yearly count: 4/5

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How They Met And Other Stories

Levithan, David. 2008. How They Met and Other Stories.

How They Met and Other Stories is a short story collection for young adults. The themes? Love and romance, lust and desire, heartache and joy. What may or may not surprise you--depending on how familiar you are with the name David Levithan--is that most of these stories are about same sex couples. Not all of the stories are, there are a handful of stories featuring straight teens, but most aren't. One review says of Levithan that he is, "
Best known for his positive, normalizing portrayals of teen relationships --- regardless of sexual orientation --- Levithan's stories focus on those longings that are the common denominators for the human heart." There are eighteen stories in all. And they do vary in quality. For example, he features a handful of stories that he wrote when he was a teen in high school. Obviously, they are not of the same quality and depth as some of his newer works. They do, in fact, show just how far he has come through the years. And I think it was rather brave to publish them. (Goodness knows, time does change things. Even a difference of a few years--the stories and poems I wrote in high school that I thought were so "good" and showed "promise" were excruciatingly cringe-worthy when I read them again just a few years later.) Do I have any favorites? Yes. I enjoyed Starbucks Boy, The Alumni Interview, The Number of People Who Meet On Airplanes, Flirting With Waiters, and What A Song Can Do the most. It's not that the others weren't good. Most of them were, but those five were my favorites. Other reviews: Little Willow,, Flamingnet.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Do Something

Yet if asked she will say Jame's death was her 9/11.
"We all have our very own," she'll say. "Don't you agree?"

Kate Walbert's short story Do Something relates the story of Margaret, an older woman who still grieves the death of her son James. Throughout the story she is found wandering off with her camera to the military base in her community. She is often picked up by the soldiers on duty because of the posted laws: no trespassing and no pictures. Each time, her daughter Caroline questions her mother's motives and actions when she has to retrieve Margaret from the base.

"I am just trying to Do Something," Margaret says, though Caroline is busy looking for dinner inspiration, for anything other than pasta. "You don't care to understand. It's like everything. Conversation, for example, is now just approximations of opinions adopted from other opinions that were approximations of opinions, et cetera, et cetera. I'm just trying to be real when everything is an approximation."
But this is not true, exactly. Death is not an approximation. It is completely real; it is unchangeable, forever --- an approximation of nothing. Hadn't she seen it that first time she'd found the base, the barracks, the military galaxy? Where had she been going? She can't remember anymore.

Margaret's character seems to blur from activist to unstable person to protester to grieving mother. There is more to the imagery in this short story than I was able to understand. I did find the Contributor's Notes in the back of the collection to be helpful in this matter. The author used personal experiences in the story. She said, "Writing it felt like shaking my fist at something impossible to name any other way."

You are not responsible, she would say. It is shameful what we've done to you. We should all of us be ashamed.
"You are just like the rest of us," she says. "You are only trying to Do Something."
Does Margaret shout this or whisper? It no longer matters. She is suddenly tired and aware that she should go. She'll return home the way she came, driving back through ye olde et cetera to her rightful place beside Harry: Margaret Morrisey, mother to Caroline and the dead one, James.

Although not one of my favorite stories so far, Do Something was an interesting piece that blended modern day current events with a mother's grief and the need to do something about it.

"Do Something" by Kate Walbert (from Ploughshares) from The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King with Heidi Pitlor