Monday, March 31, 2008

John Mutford's 9th Short Story Pick- Sean O'Faolain's "The Trout"

Short Story Monday

Sean O'Faolain's short story "The Trout" brought back an unexpected childhood memory for me. Julia, a twelve year old girl, is on summer vacation with her family when she happens to discover a secluded well, a well that holds a mystery trout.

Merits of the story aside for the moment, my father also used to keep a trout in our drinking well. It all came back to me as I read this: how he'd sometimes take the cover off and me and my sister would peer down into our silhouettes below and see who'd be the first to spy the little imprisoned fish. Why did he keep it there? No one in "The Trout" could come up with a satisfactory answer, and when I called to question my father about it today, he didn't really know either. "To catch the bugs," he supposed, but he'd no idea where the idea came from in the first place. Nor did the thought of fish poop seem to phase him. Anyway, when I tried the Internet to dig deeper into this bizarre tradition, all I could find was a few sites that mentioned other stories involving trouts in wells. According to one source, "These trout stories are common all over Ireland." Another told of a Scottish version of Snow White, in which a talking well trout replaces the magic mirror. Though my ancestry is British, I'm guessing similar tales influenced my father.

Sound cruel? Don't call PETA on my father just yet-- the trout has long been removed from his well. Julia was also bothered by the inhumanity. In fact, she couldn't get it off her mind and couldn't enjoy her vacation knowing it was there. This, perhaps predictably, leads to a decision to rescue the creature.

The version I've linked to is from "The Global Classroom" which provides a bit of background information (unfortunately it doesn't shed any light on why the fish in the well) and a few study questions. The question that caught my eye asked "What definition of maturity, or growing up, does the story convey?" I wondered about that one. Julia is twelve, and Faolain obviously picked an age at the cusp of adolescence for a reason. He remarks on several occasions what the age means; "...that age little girls are beginning to suspect most stories", "she knew that there are no such things as fairy godmothers" and so forth. But, these are lessons learned prior to the story and in that case, doesn't fit the bill for a coming-of-age story. Perhaps the only thing that could characterize it as such is Julia's final act, and I'm not sure even that is necessarily a defining decision.

But coming-of-age story or not, I enjoyed it. The story itself is simply told, rich in setting, and the characters are likable.

The Soundtrack:
1. Have You Fed The Fish?- Badly Drawn Boy
2. Tourist Trap- Bright Eyes
3. So Cruel- U2
4. Child of The Moon- The Rolling Stones
5. Running Down A Dream- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Cross posted at The Book Mine Set.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Won't Remember This

You Won't Remember This is Kate Blackwell's first published collection, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. All twelve stories center around the ordinary domestic lives of modern day Southern women, yet Blackwell manages to imbue otherwise "forgettable" everyday occurrences with deep import and meaning. The stories have relationships at their heart - mother and daughter, husband and wife, neighbor and friend-relationships that are illuminated in all their grit and glory by Blackwell's painterly writing style.

In My First Wedding, the narrator looks back on her 12 year old self, attending the wedding of her much admired cousin Augusta:

"The eye was drawn ineluctably to the three figures sitting in a circle of light. Augusta wore nothing but her ivory slip; her bare arms and throat gleamed like porcelain in the glare of the single bulb. My mother in scarlet silk leaned toward her across the table, her lips parted in mid-speech. Beside her, my aunt smiled mysteriously, her brown hair braided and wound around her head in a burnished coronet."

But in art, as in life, the reader must be prepared for the unexpected, which intrudes in nearly each one of these tales. Alexandra, in The Secret Life of Peonies, appears to be living in the midst of domestic perfection, yet there is something slightly rotten hidden beneath this outwardly beautiful tableau:

"Alexandra arranges six pink shrimp on a white plate, adds a spring of cilantro, an handful of lemony arugula, a single cherry tomato. Tommy smiles up at her as she sets the plate in front of him. His face is pink, like a shrimp, his hair a coppery red. Then: clank, Saturday's mail shoots through the mail slot in the hall. Tommy shoves back his chair with a shriek of wood on tile."
In contrast to this scene of domestic bliss, the letter coming through the mail slot is an anonymous note to Tommy, informing him of Alexandra's affair.


At the heart of this collection is the rhetorical question posed by the narrator of My First Wedding, reflecting now on the Augusta's death . "I have learned to appreciate the beauty of still lives," she thinks, "and it saddens me to think they will all be lost. For who will remember women like my mother, my aunt, and Augusta? Who will remember any of us who live so hidden, so far from nearly everything?"

And so these stories become small, beautifully crafted memorials to women's lives and experiences, ensuring they won't, after all, be forgotten.

cross posted here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tales From the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird

Tales From the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird by Vivian Vande Velde is simply too much fun to resist. Vivian Vande Velde re-envisions thirteen familiar fairy tales and adds sparkle, wit, humor, and irony. I enjoyed each and every story in the collection. I can't really do the book much justice by my review, but I thought I'd share some first lines from the stories. If they don't convince you to pick up the book, nothing will.

Once upon a time, in the days before Social Security or insurance companies, there lived a miller and his daughter, Della, who were fairly well-off and reasonably happy until the day their mill burned down.

Once upon a time when princes still set out to seek their fortunes and when cranky old women still sometimes turned out to be witches, a prince named Sidney came to a well where an old woman asked him for help in getting water.

Once upon a time in a land and time when animals could speak and people could understand them, there lived an old woman whose best friend was a wolf.

Once upon a time, after the invention of teenagers but before there were shopping malls for teenagers to hang around in, there lived a young man named Jack.

Once upon a time before there were toll bridges, there were troll bridges.

Once upon a time, before the invention of water-beds or air mattresses or Craftmatic adjustable beds, there lived a prince named Royal.

Once upon a time, before Medicare or golden-age retirement communities, there lived a beautiful young girl named Isabella, who stayed at home to take care of her parents.

Once upon a time, in a land where even parents had magic, a mother got so upset with her son's bad temper, sloppy clothes, messy room, and disgusting table manners that she said: "If you're going to act like a beast, you might as well look like one, too."

In addition to these stories (from the thirteen) are some fairy-tale themed poems. These are wonderful as well. (I plan to devote at least one or two Poetry Friday posts to these delightful little poems.)

I definitely recommend this one.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield

What is it about some short stories that they can put you in your place and make you feel like a complete heel without ever directly pointing a finger? "Miss Brill" is a three page vignette of a woman people-watching at a public band performance in a park. She goes there every week and enjoys the miniature "performances" unfolding around her, listening in on snippets of the lives of others, smiling and envisioning wonderful things for those she sees. We've all done that. And we've all passed our snarky little judgments on those we've deemed unworthy for no reason other than we didn't like the way they looked. But guess what? Life is not a private performance. The others we're watching are watching us, too. How many kind-hearted Miss Brill's would I have made cry if they could have heard my thoughtless remarks?

I closed the book on this gorgeous story feeling thoroughly chastised. Once again I am reminded of all the work I have ahead of me if I really want to be the kind of person I would admire.


This review is also found on my blog at Books 'N Border Collies

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Powers of Detection: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy edited by Dana Stabenow


"Investigations of a different kind...

Conjured from the minds of today's most innovative authors, Powers of Detection features a dozen tales of mystery and fantasy, set in worlds where sleuths may wield wands instead of firearms - and criminals may be as inhuman as the crimes they commit.

From a magical boarding school murder to a courtroom where a witch stands trial, from ancient legends of Alaska and Egypt to stories featuring such familiar faces as Sookie Stackhouse and such familiar places as the Nightside, these paranormal procedurals reveal the mysterious behind the mystery..." -- from the back cover

  • Cold Spell by Donna Andrews
  • The Nightside, Needless to Say by Simon R. Green
  • Lovely by John Straley
  • The Price by Anne Bishop
  • Fairy Dust by Charlaine Harris
  • The Judgement by Anne Perry
  • The Sorcerer's Assassin by Sharon Shinn
  • The Boy Who Chased Seagulls by Michael Armstrong
  • Palimspet by Laura Anne Gilman
  • The Death of Clickclickwhistle by Mike Doogan
  • Cairene Dawn by Jay Caselberg
  • Justice is a Two-Edged Sword by Dana Stabenow
My thoughts:

These stories are a great mix of fantasy and mystery, with one having a science fiction motif. I liked Simon R. Green's story of a detective who solves his own murder in the Nightside (The Nightside, Needless to Say), Sookie Stackhouse's interaction with local fairies in Charlaine Harris's Fairy Dust and the sometime humorous account of an alien murder investigation in Mike Doogan's The Death of Clickclickwhistle.

Date read: 2/21/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
(SS) Yearly Count: 2/5

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

After a good month of struggling to read, I finally found a book that seems to have busted the Bookworm's Curse.

I don't remember exactly how many years Angela Carter's, The Bloody Chamber, has been lying unread on my stacks. I tried reading it a couple of times, but it never clicked. Carter's ornate language definitely requires a certain...lyrical mood? Yeah, that's it. It's lyrical, and I always have to be in the mood for lyrical.

I've read a huge amount of fairy tale retellings through the years
--it's my thing--so I've gotten to a point where very little seems new anymore. However, I'm tickled to say, Carter's writing and her unique take on great fairy tales really felt quite original, which is enough to make me dance with joy.

The title story is a great take on the story of Bluebeard, wherein the protagonist is married off to a rich man, taken to his castle, introduced to sex (ooh!) and he soon hands over the house keys, heads off on a journey, and she finds all the bodies of his former wives locked away in his private chamber. Nothing new there. However, Carter puts a decidedly feminist twist on her tales, and the young woman's savior takes a very distinct form compared to the other Bluebeard tales I've read.

Carter also tackles other well known tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Beauty and the Beast." At first I was a little put off by the recurring retellings. That is, included in The Bloody Chamber are multiple retellings of the Red Riding Hood story and Beauty and the Beast. At first I thought it would be quite repetitive, but I was delighted to find that Carter does a nice job individuating her tales and making multiple retellings feel very unique and fresh.

I'm certainly a convert now. I have another of Carter's works, the novella Heroes and Villains, on my stacks. I suspect I may revisit Carter before the end of the Once Upon a Time II challenge! What better way to celebrate fantasy writing than with a supreme artist like Carter?

Additionally, this is the first complete book of stories I've finished for the Short Story Challenge! I'm excited to be able to tick another completed book off of my sidebar. And what a rich, seductive experience it was!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cross posted from here..

Title: Collected Stories
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
ISBN: 0-14-015756-5
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd/1996
Pages: 292
rating: 2.5/5

Marquez is one author, I love to read. However, I need a lot of time in between his books. I picked this after a long time. It is a collection of twenty six short stories (originally published in three volumes, Leaf Storm andOther Stories, No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, and Innocent Erendira and Other Stories). A few I had read before in another of his book, Innocent Erendira. These are given in chronological order of their publication.

Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982. I do not think, he needs any introduction. However, what most of us get to read is his translated works as he only wrotein Spanish. That is a disadvantage, I think.

This book has three parts and shows us the growth of Marquez as a writer. I found the initial stories not too good. I just could not relate to those. At some instances, I had to re-read and that did not help me a bit. I found it confusing, confounded and disappointed. The Third Resignation is about a seven year old boy who falls into a coma and grows to adulthood in a coffin mother’s house. The Other Side Of Death has shades of a Allan Poe nightmare.

There Are No Thieves In This Town
is about man who steals three billiard balls from a pool hall and finally is foolish about the whole thing. One Of These Days is about a corrupt mayor. Dialogue With The Mirror is incomprehensible. Eyes Of A Blue Dog is a story in a dream which speaks of a doomed relationship between two people who know each other only in dream, and not in the real world.

In The Sea of Lost Time, the island is pervaded with the fragrance of roses in the sea. The smell triggers changes on the island and thats about it, as colonial misdeeds still continue. The Monologue Of Isabel Watching It Rain In Macondo is about a town wholly destroyed by incessant rain. In The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World children playing by the sea see a corpse approaching them. The women go ga-ga over him and men are jealous of him. He is named Esteban and a whole myth is built around him, Then, after a proper funeral, he is thrown back into the sea.

Eva Is Inside Her Cat, Eva is a spirit who can take over any living thing. She is an unbalanced being and the story can be interpreted as consequences of oppression to the mind, or soul. Only part that redeems the book is the novella Innocent Erendira, which I had read before. The novella is a very poignant rendering about Erendira, who is only fourteen when we first meet her and is punished by her grand mother in a very diabolical manner when she accidentally burns her grand mother’s house. The way Erendira has to repay is heart rending. She runs away numerous times only to be brought back..

I know I will continue reading Marquez. However, this book left me wanting more. I can't even mention how a few stories were not worth reading. I just left those halfway through. Here I found, Marquez has gor repetitive in his symbolism and in a few instances, the stories do not make any kind of sense. For light readers, it is strictly a no-no!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Horseman" by Richard Russo

by Richard Russo
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2006
Reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2007

Cross posted here

“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself…

... However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
– Joan Didion, On Self-Respect

The above excerpt is from one of my favorite essays. I refer to it whenever faced with my inner demons. You know the ones: doubt, insecurity, fear of failure – as well as success.

I found that after reading Richard Russo's short story "Horseman", there are other demons I must learn deal with, such as:

How much person do I put into this ‘person’ality?

How much of me am I willing to share, in my life, in my career, and with myself?

If I hold back the truer part of me; who am I hurting – who am I cheating out of the happiness that is due me as a creative, caring, individual?

When describing this story, and its inception, Russo wondered, “How is it, then, that so many smart people use the study of literature to erect sturdy barriers between themselves and their lives, to become strangers to their truest desires, their best selves?” He also noted that he’d “never quite figured out exactly how such self-deception worked”.

In order to find an answer, he had his protagonist Janet Moore begin her journey of self-revelation by having to deal with a student who was caught plagiarizing. It not only triggers a deep rooted anger toward those who cheat, but a memory which begins to haunt her, ‘driving’ her 'back upon herself', forcing her to discover her own self-deception, one that has brought her to the unhappy reality of her life.

She learns that plagiarism is not simply “taking someone's words or ideas as if they were your own,” it is using them to create a barrier between you and the fear of revelation and rejection. Janet herself thinks, “Then again, what if he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Hadn’t she sometimes had the distinct feeling that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling them again?”

This is an excellent story in the lessons it can teach; the most important being to never hold back, not from others, but especially not from yourself. Russo’s story beautifully illustrates how one should “find that…elusive thing, a self worth being, worth becoming, and, finally, worth revealing” and one should never have to “wake up some day to the terrible realization that you’ve somehow managed to ignore the simple thing you wanted most in life and know it’s now too late.”

After reading this story, as well as re-reading Didion’s essay, I am beginning to realize that self-deception is directly related to self-respect. And if I am to gain the latter, I must never succumb to the former, for it really is true; the only person you hurt by cheating is your ‘self’.

This is a story that will have you thinking, and hopefully - discovering.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Black Swan, White Raven - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

Another great collection of adult re-tellings of fairy tales. This collection focuses mostly on The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen re-tellings and is composed of 21 tales by 21 different authors.

The Flounder's Kiss - Michael Cadnum
Based on the Grimm fairy tale "The Fisherman and his Wife" looking at greed to also making it a more sinister version. One day a fisherman catches a fish that says it will grant him a wish if he lets it go. When he tells his wife about it she gets greedy and keeps sending him back for more and more wishes. Eventually he kills the fish after wishing for silence from his wife.

The Black Fairy's Curse - Karen Joy Fowler
A version of Sleeping Beauty where she dreams beautiful and erotic dreams during her long sleep only to be suddenly awoken by kiss from a Prince and not being too happy about losing her dreams.

Snow in Dirt - Michael Blumlein
Another look at Sleeping Beauty about a man who digs up the body of a woman from his garden. She is sleeping and he tries everything to wake her up until she does so suddenly by herself one morning. She is beautiful and becomes a model before their marriage starts to suffer. She isn't able to handle aging and eventually falls back asleep.

Riding the Red - Nalo Hopkinson
A very dark, sexual and strange look at Little Red Riding Hood.

No Bigger than my Thumb - Esther M Friesner
A dark version of traditional fairy tales of thumb sized children. Lord Galeron has been cursed by a witch making him unable to have children. He visits her after his third wife dies to see if the rumours are true and she has born his daughter. She tricks him after he kills her and her grandmother showing him the daughter he is not quite expecting and in turn killing him.

In the Insomniac Night - Joyce Carol Oates
Inspired by the ballad version of "The Elfin-Knight" where the pivotal character is a false suitor who kills the woman he seduces. A single mother feels like she is being stalked on the order of her ex-husband who wants custody of their two children. On her nightly run she has an encounter with a car and she imagines the childrens father has broken into her house and is videotaping himself raping their children. Filled with suspense.

The Little Match Girl - Steve Rasnic Tam
A poetical re-telling of the tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

The Trial of Hansel and Gretel - Garry Kilworth
Here Hansel and Gretel are portrayed as German peasants who are possibly victims or possibly guilty of sorcery and greed. They are accused of murdering a blind old woman who lived in the forest by pushing her into an oven which they admit to. They claim it was because she was a witch and was going to cook them, but their story has many inaccuracies in it. They stole her treasure and when the judge accuses Gretel of being a witch, their father appears and delays the trial until their step mother can arrive to free them. The judge is turned into a pig as he walks away from the trial.

Rapunzel - Anne Bishop
Another tale of peasants, greed and sorcery. Very similar to "The Root of the Matter" by Gregory Frost in the first anthology (Snow White, Blood Red). The main difference is that the narrator of the story changes between Rapunzel's mother, witch Gothel and Rapunzel herself at the end. Rapunzel is redeemed at the end and is the only one who doesn't bow down to greed.

Sparks - Gregory Frost
A contemporary version of "The Tinder Box" by Hans Christian Andersen. An old Spanish lady hires a war veteran to retrieve her lighter from the bottom of a hollow tree. In the tree are three dogs guarding bronze, silver and gold. He keeps the lighter which turns out to summon the three dogs who also grant wishes. He is able to get the girl of his dreams with the help of the dogs despite being captured along the way.

The Dog Rose - Sten Westgard
Sleeping Beauty told from the prespective of one of the local peasants who is waiting for a prince who can wake her up. Edward is a gardener and has a relative in Beauty's house. He hears the roses are in bloom so goes off to see if he can reach the castle at the centre as they are said to part for the right man when blooming.

The Reverend's Wife - Midori Snyder
An oral tale collected from the Kardofan people of Sudan origianlly titled "The Muezzin's Wife". It sees two very different woman tricking each others husbands to lie with them for their own pleasure. The husbands do not realise they are doing anything wrong. Somehow sharing their husbands for a time brings them closer together and both woman are able to get what they most want.

The Orphan the Moth and the Magic - Harvey Jacobs
Based loosely on "The Cottager and his Cat" from a book called The Crimson Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang. Wilbur's father dies leaving him a secret stash of money, but in a dream a moth tells him to dispose of it as it was won through evil deeds. He does so and ends up on a beach, startled by a strange animal and is taken in by a blind old woman who mistakes him for her cat. There is only one cat in the land and noone knows what it looks like. He ends up sold to the King as a cat and falls in love with Princess Etoile. He tricks them into letting him sleep with her and when the real cat appears he tricks them again into believing it tried to steal his essence and he is now a man again.

Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs - Don Webb
A look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Alfred Byron Spencer is known as the Prince of Psychtherapy running an asylum with a great success record. He marries his Snow White, Susan Pelham who he had a crush on in high school and defeats her step mother Rachel Jackdawe and step sister Bertha Goose Girl style.

True Thomas - Bruce Glassco
Based on the famous ballad. True Thomas is forever asking himself if love will endure whilst dwelling on how he met the Queen of the Faeries. He made the choice to stay with her in faerie land with her. The faeries and his life with them are beautifully described and very different fomr the usual depictions.

The True Story - Pat Murphy
The true story of Snow White as told by her step mother turns the tale completely on its head. She sends her daughter away to avoid the advances of her father who is a paedophile and is abusing her. The princess is cared for by seven old woman in the forest (thought by many to be witches), and when her father dies and it is safe she is brought back to rule the kingdom in her own right and not at the side of a prince.

Lost and Abandoned - John Crowley
A divorced father gains custody of his children, but soon falls into poverty. He talks about abondoning them for their own good, Hansel and Gretel style, but can't bring himself to do it.

The Breadcrumb Trail - Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Her first poetical poetry sale after having more than 150 short stories published. The trail leads home, but not to safety as this was the place they were sent from. It also doesn't return at the beginning and they are able to pick their own paths in future.On Lickerish Hill - Susanna Clarke
Set in East Anglia in the 17th centuary when the distinctions between superstition and science were far more blurred. Elements of Rumplestiltskin fill this tale of fairies and weaving.

Godmother Death - Jane Yolen
A re-telling of "Godfather Death" with Death as a woman this time. The ending is also changed, after tricking Death, instead of getting the princess the king takes offense to his low background and arrests him to be hanged instead.

My favourite tale was easily "The Reverend's Wife" by Midori Snyder. It was the most original and inventive in the collection. I also very much enjoyed "Snow in Dirt", No Bigger then my Thumb", "The Trial of Hansel and Gretel", "Rapunzel", "True Thomas", "The True Story", "On Lickerish Hill" and "Godmother Death". As now many of the authors are repeated from earlier anthologies, I have come to really look forward to reading new stories by authors I enjoyed from previous anthologies but hadn't read before. I think my favourite two new authors from these collections so far are Midori Snyder and Susasnne Clarke.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Edgar Allan Poe
Genre: Short Story
Published: 1843/Collection 1992
Personal Rating: 4/5
(SS) Yearly Count: 4

A man, who insists he is sane, decides to kill an older man because the older man has an eye that disturbs him.

Yep, it's true. I never read this. But I have now! While it is a very short story, it demonstrates what the conscience can do in a big way.


Agatha Christie
Genre: Short Story
Published: 1932/1985 Collection
Personal Rating: 3.75/5
(SS) Yearly Count: 3

My second Miss Marple mystery in The Tuesday Club Murders turns out to be another good one. In this short story, Dr. Pender, the elderly clergyman, tells the happenings of a tragic experience. He shares that he "saw a man stricken to death by apparently no mortal agency". He, of course, knows what really happened and apparently so does Miss Marple.

The Diarist

"That's a girl's diary," Davis said when he joined me at the S. S. Kresge lunch counter, where we'd agreed to meet, and where, having already ordered a glass of ice water, I now sat daubing a moistened paper napkin on the sticky blemish the price tag had left on the diary's plasticized cover. ... When Davis sat down I felt something heavy and immutable settling beside me. I dropped the diary back into its paper sack and heard it land with a heavy thump, as if its cover girl had herself just fallen from orbit.
"It's the only kind they've got," I told him.
I couldn't tell if Davis knew that I was lying. I started to add that Mrs. Tucker, my sixth-grade teacher, had once advised our class that we should all keep diaries, especially now that we were entering junior high, so we could look back one day at all the interesting things that happened in our lives. ...
"Sure," Davis said. "Like you've got something to write about."

In the short story The Diarist by Richard McCann, the eleven year old narrator struggles with what to write when he feels like he has so much inside himself to express. He is struggling to figure out why he feels so different from his older brother and his father. The three are preparing to leave for their annual August fishing trip when he buys the diary. He is not looking forward to the trip because he doesn't really enjoy the sporting activities. In addition, his mother will not be joining them this year.

Throughout the preparations, the travel, and the days spent at the old farmhouse, he reflects on how he is more his mother's child. He would rather be enjoying a vacation with her than fishing at the lake and eating ravioli with his father. He compares his preferences of activities to those of his brother's. And he dreams of somehow trying to reconnect with his father who seems to question his strange behaviors.

I knew what my wish would be, if one wish were granted me: Please let me seem, even if only for this hour, my father's son. I knew the time had come. I knew I had to please him.

After a turn of events begin to shed light on his struggle, he now finds that the awareness of his differences and secrets are really just beginning.

I hate you, I thought. I hate you, I hate you. In retrospect, I'm not sure who I was hating more right then, as I stood there --- my father, my mother, or myself. ... For the first time, I wanted to write something down, something true, even if I had no idea what words I'd one day use in doing so.

"The Diarist" by Richard McCann from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman

Monday, March 10, 2008

John Mutford's 8th Short Story Pick: Frank O'Connor's "The First Confession"

Short Story Monday
Cross-posted at The Book Mine Set.
In case you haven't noticed, this is my 2nd Irish Short Story Monday in a row. I mean, faith and begorrah, why'd'ya be wroitin about da oirish for? (Sorry, had to get that out of my system.) It's all in honour of St. Patrick's Day, which falls on the 17th of this month.

Frank O'Connor's "The First Confession" could serve as a prototype of Irish lit: funny, nostalgic, and full of the usual Catholic, potato-loving, booze-swilling, violent characters we love so much. Perhaps the one character who doesn't behave like a stereotype is the priest who, along with the narrator (who wins us over with his charm), makes this story worth reading. It's not perhaps as dark as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, but it reminded me of it nonetheless. O'Connor excels at capturing the child's perspective.

The Soundtrack:
Ode To My Family- The Cranberries
Friel's Kitchen- The Chieftains
Numb- U2
Saints & Sinners- Paddy Casey
Did Ye Get Healed?- Van Morrison

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"The Barrow" and "Conversations at Night"

In Orsinian Tales (which isn't sci-fi, despite being written by Ursula LeGuin), LeGuin has created a fictional Eastern European country (Orsinia), and then written stories about its inhabitants at various times in history. The year the story takes place isn't revealed until the very end, which is interesting. So far, it's ranged from 1150 to 1960. Le Guin really captures that kind of old forest, secretive feel that I think we all associate with Eastern Europe, as well as the danger of Communist times when appropriate. I'm about half way through, and some of the stories are certainly better than others. So far, my two favourites are "The Barrow" and "Conversations at Night."

"The Barrow" takes place in 1150, and it just feels so medieval. It looks at the conflict between Christianity and paganism, and specifically focuses on a chief in the region. His wife has been in labor with their firstborn for a very long time, and he's getting nervous. But what can he do to help? He already has a midwife, and he's not even allowed into the room (since this is women's business). Meanwhile, he's hosting a traveling priest as a guest, and the priest sees everything in black and white, or in his case Christian or heathen. Through fireside conversations, the chief and his men argue with the priest, all the while trying to ignore screams from the women's quarters. It's pretty short, at twelve pages, but the atmosphere is just perfect.

My other favourite, "Conversations at Night" moves up into 1920. It looks mainly at Sanzo, a strong young man who had a bright future until a war wound blinded him, and Lisha, his neighbour who begins reading aloud to him in the afternoons. As their relationship deepens, they have to face all the problems that come along with Sanzo's blindness. I liked this one because the characters, and how they interact with each other, rang true. Both Sanzo and Lisha have families, which resulted in lots of minor characters that were fun to watch. This one is also much longer, almost forty pages, which gives it more resonance.

Monday, March 3, 2008

John Mutford's 7th Short Story Pick- James Joyce's "Araby"

Short Story Monday

Cross posted at The Book Mine Set.

James Joyce's "Araby" from his collection The Dubliners, is a brilliant coming-of-age story. How does Joyce manage to do this convincingly in a few short pages when it takes some novelists an entire book? Such stories detail the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the length depends on whether or not the author can prove this happens over a course of events or can be learned through a single lesson.

In "Araby," Joyce asserts that the crucial lesson is the realization that fantasies don't, or at least they rarely, measure up to reality. This moral comes suddenly at the end, and at first I was taken aback by the abruptness. But, after contemplating it a little more, I think that made it more effective. It not only captures the intensity of the new awareness, it also parallels ejaculation. Joyce not-so-subtly hints at masturbation several times throughout this story and what is that but the ultimate symbol of fantasy versus reality?

The Soundtrack:
1. I Go Blind- 54-40
2. I Touch Myself (Divinyls cover)- Scala Choir
3. Catch The Wind (Donovan choir)- The Irish Descendants
4. The Sheik of Araby- The Beatles
5. Wake Up- Arcade Fire

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol - Wendy's Review

Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred rubles, understood how to be content with his fate; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were there not various ills sown among the path of life for titular councillors as well as for private, actual, court and every other species of councillor, even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves. -From The Overcoat-

The Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, published this short story in 1842 - a tale about a poor Russian official named Akakii Akakievich who is the ridicule of his department. Akakii lives entirely for his duties as a copier. His co-workers laugh at him and abuse him. He often has bits and pieces of filth on his uniform due to his "peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish was being flung out of it." Akakii's coat is threadbare and he is finally forced to have a new overcoat sewn for him by Petrovich the Tailor. The cost of the overcoat is exorbitant for Akakii, but he scrimps and saves, denying himself food and other basic necessities until he is able to purchase the coat. Overnight, he becomes respectful. His co-workers fawn over his beautiful, new coat - and even throw him a lavish party in celebration. But, disaster falls upon Akakii ... his joy is short lived when the coat is stolen.

Gogol's short story takes an interesting twist as Akakii seeks help to recover the overcoat - going first to the police and then an "important personage." He is lost amid a barrage of bureaucracy:

..."don't you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don't you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me." -From The Overcoat-

The Overcoat is a story about a common man who is beneath everyone (much is made in the beginning about Akakii's name which comes close to the Russian word kaka - translated as "poop"), but who rises in esteem simply upon the purchase of an overcoat. He falls again with the loss of this possession, and must appeal to the government for assistance - which does not come. The ending (which I do not want to reveal to those who have not read the story), implies that the common man will ultimately rise above his persecutors. Gogol pokes fun at those in power, showing them to be insubstantial and shallow despite their titles. He allows Akakii to come out on top - demonstrating it is not material gain which grants one power.

I enjoyed this short story which is perhaps more of a parable.

Recommended; rated 4/5.