Monday, June 30, 2008

Mr. Bones, by Paul Theroux - Wendy's Review

My father, apparently a simple, cheery soul, was impossible to know. -From Mr. Bones-

Paul Theroux wrote this short story which appeared on line at The New Yorker in September 2007. The narrator is a man remembering his father from many years previous. Right up front, he tells the reader that not only is his father impossible to know, but that family life is full of disorder and tension. The narrator’s father is a rather passive man, married to a domineering and critical woman, and he begins to practice for his role in a minstrel show. He dons the black face - a mask of sorts - and becomes Mr. Bones.

The story has a disturbing undercurrent, touching on racism, marital discord, and a young boy’s confusion about it all. Theroux’s writing is sharp and observant. He captures the uneasy relationships well; and forces the reader to examine the idea of hiding behind our own masks - whether it be in our personal lives or in front of an audience. As the story comes to its conclusion, the reader is left to ponder its true message.

This big event was just a talent show to Louie; and his white-haired father, who worked on the M.T.A. buses, was just an old guy singing. Yet in our house Mr. Bones had intimidated everyone. He was now someone to fear, saying the things that he normally avoided saying. In his minstrel-show costume, he could be as reckless as he wanted. -From Mr. Bones-

I found this short story stunning in many ways - the writing rich and compelling. But it is not an easy story to understand. Luckily, I read it for the 21st Fiction yahoo discussion group and so I was able to explore its many facets with other readers.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Springtime on Mars: Stories - Wendy's Review

“For years, people imagined they saw canals dug into the planet’s surface. They called these canals proof of life. They worried what intelligent life on Mars might mean to us earthlings, to our safety. But, it was nothing. An optical illusion a cosmic misprint. There’s no life. There’s nothing.” -From Springtime on Mars, page 112-

Susan Woodring’s wonderful book of short stories is a joy to read. They are linked in theme - women growing older and looking back on their lives; loss and hope; the idea of gravity keeping our feet on the ground; searching for meaning somewhere between science and God. All Woodring’s stories take place among ordinary people and families - but they are at the same time people who are extraordinary without realizing it. They could be any one of us. And that perhaps is where these stories gain their power.

Woodring writes with an eye on the small details of life and explores the every day push and pull of relationships. There is sadness mingled in her characters’ lives, but also a twinkle of hope and meaning. I especially liked her female characters - women who still were looking for their dreams.

I believe: love deep, give marshmallows and other treats to children, and sleep as long and often as you can, but wake early, eat breakfast. I’m sixty-eight years old; I’m not going backward. -From Morning Again, page 27-

Woodring has had her short stories published in a number of literary magazines and anthologies. She is also the author of the novel The Traveling Disease. This collection was published by a small press: Press 53. If you only read one collection of short stories this year, I would recommend this one. Beautifully crafted with a deep sense of American life and what it means to be human, Springtime on Mars will captivate you.

My thanks to Susan Woodring for sending me a signed copy of her book.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Black Heart, Ivory Bones - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

Sadly this is the last in the Adult Fairy Tale series of short stories collected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windlin. It contains 21 tales and poems by 20 different authors. Below is a full list of the stories and a brief description of what they are about.

Rapunzel - Tanith Lee
A young Prince falls in love with a woman he meets on his way home after a battle. He spins his father a tale of Rapunzel to explain where he has been and why it took him so long to arrive home.

The Crone - Delia Sherman
A poem about the familiar figure of The Crone from many fairy tales.

Big Hair - Esther Friesner
A look at Rapunzel in relation to child Beauty Pagents. The end was quite chilling as her daughter follows in her footsteps and there is an illusion to child abuse.

The King with Three Daughters - Russell Blackford
A look at a troll killer based on the Norse tale The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain. A strange tale about a warrior who has to "rescue" a King's three missing daughters where all is not what it seems.

Boys and Girls Together - Neil Gaiman
A poem covering a variety of fairy tales which looks at boys not wanting to be Princes (any other role is fine!) and girls secretly being Princesses. In their turn they become bad Kings and wicked step mothers, wood-cutters, ancient shepherds, crones and wise-women.

And Still She Sleeps - Greg Costikyan
A look at Sleeping Beauty after the authors marriage collapsed and suffered from depression. It also looks at the romantic notion of love when sleeping girl is dug up. Legends say only her true love can wake her up but it seems he isnot to be found as how can you truely someone from just looking at them, you have to know them first.

Snow in Summer - Jane Yolen
Snow White is better bale to look after herself in this tale by recognising her steo mother when she turns up on her doorstep one day. A bittersweet ending for our heroine.

Briar Rose and Witch - Debra Cash
Two poems with fairy tale themes. Not originally written as a pair but they go beautifully together.

Chanterelle - Brian Stableford
Part based on Hansel and Gretel with elements of the novella "Luscignole" and the play "the Sunken Bell" with illusions to the use of magic mushrooms along the way. Another strange and bittersweet tale.

Bear it Away - Michael Cadnum
A new look at Goldilocks and the Three BEars with talking bears that are chaed away by Goldilocks and a hunter.

Goldilocks Tells All - Scott Bradfield
The second Goldilocks tale in the series which sees Goldilocks cashing in on her tale and dishing the dirt in the media and in her novels of femal empowerment. It takes the stance that Goldilocks was never the innocent one in the tale...

My Life as a Bird - Charles de Lint
Set in Newford (de Lint's made up city) it contains elements of Rumpelstiltskin and The Fisherman and His Wife. Some familiar characters for those who are familiar with de Lint's tales with the addition of a grumpy dwarf.

The Red Boots - Leah Cutter
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Red Shoes" the girl in this tale differs by never giving up her desire to outdo everyone else at dancing to the detriment of her personal relationships and love life. She suffers beatings and loses her best friend who she loves as more than a friend along the way.

Rosie's Dance - Emma Hardesty
Based on Cinderella after reading a poem from "Transformations" by Anne Sexton and looking at a painting by Terrin Windling. Filled with poverty and cruelty as one girl leaves behind her inherited family to make a life for herself. Contains many of the original elements of the tale despite the setting being very different from the original tale.

You, Little Match Girl - Joyce Carol Oates
Evoking the horror that happiness is but an illusion. The central character believes that if she loves no one she is free until her last close relative dies and she is in a car accident armed with just a fading flash light.

Dreaming Among Men - Bryn Kanar
A very odd tale where it turns out that the dreamer is an animal and not a human at all.

The Cats of San Martino - Ellen Steiber
Based on an Italian fairy tale found in Italo Calvino's collection. An interesting tale about a woman who runs away from her boyfriend after he cruelly dumps her for another woman he has been sleeping with behind her back. She finds solace in a house with no doors filled with cats that it turns out can talk. They lok after her until she is ready to return to the human world and carry on with her life. Unfortunately her ex-boyfriend is not so lucky...

The Golem - Severna Park
Looking at the parallel between the alienation of Jewish woman within their own culture with the alienation of the Jews in general. A older woman makes a golem to protect her and her friends from a group of men killing all of the Jews in the area. She is able to bring new life in the form of the golem, and in it's death, new life to an otherwise barren land.

Our Mortal Span - Howard Waldrop
A theme park named Story Book Town where one of the automations (a troll) breaks free and starts to smash up the others including Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Perrault among other fairy tale characters. His issue is that the story tellers have lied to us and their dead ideas need to be overthrown.

Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower - Susanne Clarke
In a similar vein to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It is a rendering of "The Midwife to the Fairies" found in English, Irish, Scotish and Breton variations. Many other fairy tale themes are used in this charming tale of a fairy, his servant and the man who tries to trick them to save the life of a mortal woman.

My personal favourite was The Cats of San Martino very closely followed by Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower, My Life as a Bird and The King with Three Daughters. Others that deserve an honourable mention are Big Hair, Boys and Girls Together, Snow in Summer, Briar Rose and Witch, Chanterelle, Goldilocks Tells All, The Red Boots, You Little Match Girl, The Golem and Our Mortal Span. I am really sad this series has ended and I look forward to re-visiting them in the future. I also look forward to reading more anthologies by both women, either together or singly and I higly recommend their collections.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

History of the Short Story: A Reading List

The Encyclopedia Britannica includes an overview of the short story that covers the history of the form, and I gleaned quite a few must-read authors from the article by Arlen J. Hansen. In addition to the writers you would expect to find discussed, such as Poe (shown here), the following writers were important to the short story form, and these are writers that I have not read or read so long ago that they merit re-visiting: Hawthorne, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Prosper Mérimée, Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, G.W. Cable (an American who is news to me), Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, Washington Irving, Charles Nodier, Gérard de Nerval, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Krylov, Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, Luigi Pirandello (didn't know he wrote anything besides plays), Paul Morand, Katherine Anne Porter (at last a woman), Donald Barthelme . This is the short list, which omits short story writers named in the article but whom I've read in the past few years.

The article surveys not just short stories, but story in its early forms, starting with the earliest Babylonian tales, Egyptian and Indian tales, Hebrew narratives, then stories of the Greeks and Romans, medieval Europeans, and the 16th Century Italians who enthusiastically embraced the short fiction form. I was not aware that Miguel de Cervantes had written short fiction (“Exemplary Novels”, 1613). Some of these works we would call today novellas, rather than short stories, but they all preceded the novel.

Perhaps my short story / short fiction reading list, for years to come, will introduce some other readers to unexplored writers. Recommendations for short story anthologies containing some of these European writers would be most welcome. Any favorite writers among those listed above? Once the Britannica article moved beyond ancient times, non-Western stories are ignored, and I am curious about the development of the short story form outside of Europe and the United States. Suggestions, anyone, of non-Western short fiction writers of, say, the Nineteenth Century, who are available in English translation?

This is cross-posted at Historical / Present, where there is a free link to the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the Short Story.