Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category
Caramelo is a multi-generational family saga that revolves around Celaya, a.k.a. Lala, the only daughter in a family of sons. Her childhood is spent in Mexico, Chicago, and Texas, transversing cultures, languages, and fragmented identities. She’s a bit of a tomboy: tough, funny, but a little unsure of herself all the same. It’s only in piecing together her family’s tumultuous history that she is able to situate herself and put roots to her own experiences. I loved the way that Cisneros incorporates both English and Spanish into her prose, the way she references real historical/political events (most apparent in the narrative of The Little Grandfather’s experience in the Mexican Army), and most of all I appreciated the in-text dialogue that Lala has with The Awful Grandmother, who keeps interrupting her narrative to question her framing of things, her omitting of certain details and her emphasis of others. This is a story about how stories get told, and why, as much as it is about a particular individual, family, and community of migrants. A wonderful, thoughtful, rambling novel, full of contradictory characters, intense infatuations, and unpredictable unravellings. Fantastic!
Oh, Rebecca. Rebecca is just as perfect as everyone who’s ever told you to read it has promised it would be. Mrs. de Winter is the paid companion of a rich, boring socialite when she meets Maxim on vacation in Italy. In him she finds romance as well as financial stability and a way out of her dead-end present. But when she comes to Maxim’s estate, Manderley, a new bride after a rushed marriage and a short honeymoon, she feels…unsettled. She is intimidated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seems immediately to dislike her, and she is uncomfortable in her new role as lady of the house. She has big shoes to fill, she knows, for Maxim has been married before. And his previous wife was everything that the current Mrs. de Winter is not: confined and composed, a dark, classic beauty, the perfect hostess. In every corner of the unfamiliar house, the new Mrs. de Winter catches hints of Rebecca, and her lingering presence taunts her. Rebecca builds slowly, creepily, avoiding cliche and indulging in the most lovely descriptions, reveling in archetype. Read it on a rainy, snowy, or otherwise foreboding night.
The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise populated with women who are struggling with loss, family, and questions about personal evolution and “biological destiny”. They are animal hoarders, bird watchers, veterinarians or married to veterinarians, each working to define their relationships to nature through their relationships with other animals. Bergman uses animals both captive and wild to play around with what might be parallels to her characters’ subjectivity as women working toward and against bonds of domesticity and freedom. In “Housewifely Arts”, a woman takes her son on a search for a parrot capable of mimicking her dead mother’s voice, and in another favorite of mine, “The Artificial Heart”, a woman wonders about the moral implications of life-extending technology that keeps her father alive in a semi-apocalyptic world. Some of Bergman’s characters were repetitious, while others felt more satirical than real (I’m thinking of the anti-population growth activist/husband in “Yesterday’s Whales”). Regardless, each story in this collection arced gracefully and gave me something lasting and multi-layered to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories and eagerly await future releases from Bergman!
Though a very different reading experience, The Snow Child in some way fits thematically with Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Craving a change of scenery following a terrible, personal tragedy, Mabel and Jack become early settlers of the Alaskan frontier. They fight against the cold, the brutality of the land and their surroundings, and growing emotional distance. One blistery night in the middle of winter, they build themselves a child out of snow, and shortly thereafter begin to see a young girl alone in the woods. Familiar with the Russian fairy tale, Mabel convinces herself that the child is theirs, that she was borne of hope and snow. But, however mysterious, the Snow Child does have a very real history of her own, and is as untamable and foreign as the Alaskan wilderness itself. The story is tense and moving, as the reader must come to wish for the best possible outcome for Jack and Mabel, yet can’t shake the worry that there isn’t something to the warnings inherent in that fairy tale, after all. This book was strange, entrancing, and masterfully told. A new favorite!
Unfortunately, Galore broke my winning streak. It had so much potential, too. An interesting departure…a pale man found alive in the belly of a whale beached upon the coast of newly settled Newfoundland, whose mute presence has inexplicable effects the people who find him…an intriguingly convoluted family tree and feud that survives multiple generations…and complex mythological undertones drawn from folklore and Methodism. While the idea behind this book was magnificent, and I was really looking forward to it, I found Crummey’s writing dry and his recounting of events tedious. I felt that the constant reference to the relationships between successive generations of the townspeople drew my attention away from what I found magical about the world he’d constructed. All the pieces were there; I wished he’d spent more time on plot, on playing around within the world he’d created, than reinforcing it’s boundaries and contents. I loved the dark mystery that pervaded the novel. I did not love the energy I had to expend on keeping names and eras in place and, personally, I would have liked the second half to have been more concise, with clearer intent. Oh, well.
The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville: Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman
Oh, Melville! There was not one story, or novella, in this collection that did not tussle my hair with wind, spritz my skin with salt-spray, or intimidate me with the threatening sound of white-capped waves slapping the side of an old, leaky ship (save Bartleby, which is no less fantastic for it’s relatively mundane setting). I was equally transported by each, across a world of land and sea.
In Benito Cereno, our narrator witnesses a strange vessel rush to the shore of a vacant island with sails tattered and flapping. The mysterious craft looks in no shape to start trouble, so he boards with the intention of lending a helping hand. But something seems…off, with both the evasive captain and the menacing crew. I liked the way the narrator flip-flops in his interpretation of what’s going on: his discovery is not a slow dawning of the truth, but a constant interrogation of bizarre surroundings. Sadly, but fittingly for Melville’s time and place, this story is heavy on Heart of Darkness-style racism which is used to play up the unsettling tone of the story and the savagery of past events aboard ship, intermittently revealed. Nevertheless, it’s tied up in a manner I found quite satisfying. The final paragraphs pack a creepy, powerful punch!
It’s slightly shameful that it has taken me so long to read the second story, Bartleby the Scrivener, since I’ve watched the movie adaptation with Crispin Glover a number of times already and am not at all opposed to watching it again.* In Melville’s original, it’s startling how quickly Bartleby begins to issue his “I’d prefer not to”s, and how earnestly his boss works to understand his employee’s refusal to do, well, anything. He really tries to get into Bartleby’s head, and feels a genuine sympathy for him, imagining how such a person could make it so far in life, and what such a life must entail. What could make a person so obstinate, so anti-authoritarian, so disruptive to simple bureaucracy by his very temperament and presence?
The third, The Encantadas, was my favorite. It’s almost out of place, as it doesn’t contain a standard, cohesive narrative. It’s a portrait of a place, a sketch of the many enchanted isles that make up the cluster known for misleading lost crews. It’s a place where compass needles spin wildly and ghost ships appear and disappear into the mist. A place where people have never lived that draws them in with the hunger of a bottomless stomach. One that doesn’t show up on maps, but is legend to all who’ve spent time at sea. Some micro-histories of sea-faring fellows’ contact with the islands are provided, a sort of warning about nature’s imperviousness to human willpower, an environment that promises eternal exploration and unknowing.
The last novella, Billy Budd, might have held the least pull for me, but only just so. Billy is a handsome and extremely popular sailer born of low means and conscripted into service. For all but the captain, he is a golden child and can do no wrong. But the captain disdains him and, with a paranoia likely mirroring the real feelings of captains at the time following true and recent mutinous events, accuses him of organizing against him. In a frustrating confrontation, Billy accidentally kills Captain Claggart, and despite everyone else’s conviction that he is a good man and didn’t mean to, they are committed to upholding The Law. I like the contradiction here between what is legal and what is right, though after having heard inferences of a gay subtext in this plot I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t much make it out. Or, maybe I have, but I’m not sure about it. Is it that the descriptions of Billy as handsome and perfect imply desirability amongst an all male crew? Is it that Claggart hates him in the way school kids hate on their crushes, and kills that impulse by causing his downfall? I know this is only one reading of the text, but it’s a popular one, right? I think I might need to read this one more closely, or seek out a critical essay or something about it.
As I’ve hopefully made obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Melville…much more than I expected to. I never truly considered that I would before, but I’ll be damned if that taste of his work hasn’t inclined me toward taking a stab at Moby Dick some day.
*Bartleby is now streaming on Netflix! It is weird and fun and the set is in the style of that town in Edward Scissorhands, and Crispin is great as Bartleby, so consider this a recommendation (but it is weird, so I’ll be sorry if you do take this recommendation and then hate it, as both my mom and brother have done. Oops :/)
So, life has been real chaotic these past few months, and unfortunately this has led to a bit of blog neglect. I got behind in my reviews last spring break and have only continued to fall farther behind. Now that this semester is finally over, it’s time to put what’s passed in the past with some mini-reviews.
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class is a collection of stories/essays compiled by Michelle Tea, who writes in the introduction that she was fed up with reading about the working class from the upper-class perspective of popular journalists and the like. These first-hand accounts tell frightening, vindicating, difficult tales of what it’s like to grow up a poor girl in the United States. Inadequate access to healthcare, domestic violence, alienating educational institutions–these stories cover all that and so much more. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and give voice to a host of sexual and gender identities as well as callings; they are activists, mothers, poets, teachers, and many things besides. As is true of all collections, some of the stories/essays are better than others. But what I might consider the weakest in this collection sets the bar quite high. Haunting and powerful. Highly recommended to those interested in gender studies and social justice.
In fifth grade, I dressed as Amelia Earhart and gave a monologue to my classmates about my flying adventures to fulfill a project requirement. Like many others, I have remained fascinated with her into adulthood. Mary S. Lovell, who wrote the book about the Mitfords that I loved so much, is a skilled biographer and I was thrilled to find that she chose Earhart as one of her subjects. What she adds to the wealth of information about Earhart’s career in The Sound of Wings, she says, is an investigation into the role that her husband–publisher, writer, and one-man-media-machine–George Putnam played in making Amelia Earhart a household name. Earhart was courageous, stubborn, and determined as hell, but even her closest friends and biggest supporters readily admitted that she was not a “natural” flier in the way that many of her competitors were, both male and female (and there were a lot of women aviators at the time, I learned). She had the personality, but Putnam had the media in the palm of his hand. Together, they were an unstoppable force. I was a bit miffed at first that Putnam was getting so much credit for Earhart’s success, but eventually I was persuaded as to the impact of his work on her behalf. My only complaint, then, is that his name should have been included in the title. Without that inclusion, it did at first seem a little unfair to give so attention to him. I also wish that Lovell had spent more than half a page on Earhart’s friendship with fellow pilot Jackie Cochran, which seems to have consisted of psychic-seance type meetings in which they (correctly!!!) identified the locations of three crashed airplanes. Because, whoa. And yes, Jackie did make a detailed prediction about what happened to Amelia, and where…!
I owe the blogosphere a huge favor for this one, because I wouldn’t have tried it without a host of blogger recommendations. And I loved it. I’ve been on a scary movie kick for months now, but have always avoided scary stories in book form out of some misguided idea that scary stories in books are all hokey, or something (I know, I know…what a ridiculous prejudice for a book-lover to have!). Well, this book was downright creepy. It takes place in a crumbling post-war Mansion called Hundreds Hall in the English countryside (um, what more do you need to know?). The Ayres family is used to a bougeoise way of life which is becoming impossible as the make up of the country’s class structure starts to shift. They are haunted by their imcompetence to keep up the house without the aid of dozens of servants, and their past prestige…increasingly, though, it seems they must be haunted by something else, too. Something more sinister. I figured out what was going on about three-fourths of the way through the book and admit that I was expecting a bit more of a twist, or something, but I still had a great time racing straight through to the end of this one!
This book is incredibly hard to talk about. I’ve seen comparisons made between this book and works by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges but as I haven’t actually read either of them, I can’t comment on that (I do have a huge collection of Borge’s works though which I really want to delve into this summer). This book is a Library of Tangents, and each “story” exhibits some marvelous thing, history, idea, or paradox that exists in the imaginative universe that Rose has created. It’s filled with small but detailed diagrams, charts, paintings, and maps that tell of all things from “Languages of Hidden Islands” to “Lost Horologies and Systems of Measures”. Sounds obscure, yes, and it is…but what’s so captivating about these fantastical tangents–whole societies incapable of forgetting anything, and who are therefore unable to reflect; isolated communities of people who see color on a spectrum only visible to them–is that they seem almost too strange and unlikely to be made up. Part of us wants to believe that they are true, that things we know to be real fill the void between fact and the imaginary. These bizarre fables, if you can call them that, are fun in that they challenge you to pick out the fact from the fiction, and a bit disconcerting in that you find you can’t always do it. A neat little book.
That’s it for now, but expect a second installment of catch-up reviews in the next few days 🙂
Dubliners, a collection of short stories, reads more like a series of photographs: each one is still and neatly framed, depicting someone in a limited, static situation from which escape from their constricted circumstances seems unlikely, if possible at all. Through each close-up we get a glimpse of “dear dirty Dublin” at the turn of the twentieth century; it’s narrow streets, it’s dimly lit pubs, it’s struggling population trying to make better lives for themselves through marriage, through travel, through religion, through drink…
Joyce’s writing matches perfectly the scenes he’s dealing with. He uses very dense, hyper realistic language that is evocative and a bit tense. As with the nature of his characters, there is much restrained emotion held teasingly beyond the reach of the reader. At times, though, I felt a little stuck in the thickness of his writing, and the very slim collection took me quite some time to finish.
I appreciate the impression of Dublin that I got from this book, but ultimately, none of the stories really stuck out to me. They are definitely meant to be read together, so I don’t really mind that, in this instance, since that was part of the point–to construct a bigger picture out of parts. However, my lack of real identification any of the stories made reading the next one kind of a chore and I lost quite a bit of reading momentum towards the end of the collection.
Overall, my first experience with Joyce was a good one. But I can only imagine the ways in which the density of his writing, coupled with the stream of consciousness style of his longer works, might make them extremely difficult and tiring to read. I would still like to try Ulysses at some point, but I must admit to being a little wary of it now and am not in a huge rush to do so.
I’m going to do a few quick write-ups of the last few books I read in 2010. I’m eager to get them out of the way so that I can write about one of my new favorite books, and the first completed in the new year: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins! An excellent start to the reading year, for sure. But, first, a quick look back…
We’ll start with The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor. The Women of Brewster Place is a collection of related short stories, all of which center one or two of the women living in Brewster Place, a low-income housing complex in the city. Many of them have come from the south, and struggle with poverty, relationships, violence, love, and family. I found the stories compelling, and I liked the way that some characters would appear and re-appear in others’ stories. The community felt very real to me, and it was interesting to see how each of the women interacted with it and with each other. But the themes of pain and loss were intense, and by the time they culminated in the final story–which was really disturbing–I felt a bit bogged down by it all. These stories did a good job, I thought, of highlighting issues that disproportionally affect African American women. Unfortunately, the tone of each was very similar, and the lack of differentiation left me feeling lukewarm about the book.
Next up is War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I took a course in Native American Lit for a semester in high school, where I remember reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and liking it immensely. War Dances, though, didn’t do it for me. Throughout the short stories and poems in this collection, most of which deal with father-son relationships, I caught glimpses of the kinds of insights I’d been expecting from Alexie about Indian identity and masculinity, and some about US pop culture that I hadn’t been expecting but found funny. But, though I liked aspects of many of the pieces in War Dances, I found that I didn’t really like any of the stories or poems all that much as a whole, and even less as a collection. Something about them felt a little trite and unfinished. I’m more than willing to give Alexie another chance, based on the first collection I read and his good reputation, but certainly not on the merit of this book alone.
Finally, we get to The Manticore, by Robertson Davies, one of my new favorite authors! The Manticore is the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, following Fifth Business. In this book, Davey Staunton is seeking therapy after the mysterious death of his father. Throughout the course of his treatment, he must not only come to terms with the true nature of his relationship with his father, but he must also gain a better understanding of the roles played by other key friends and family members in the course of his life’s narrative. It is only once he discovers these characters’ almost philosophical reason for being in his life, or the impact they’ve had on his subconscious, that he may come to feel he has any control over what happens to him. The story is told almost completely through his therapy sessions with Jungian psychoanalyst Joanna Von Haller. Though the book itself might “work” without having read the first in the trilogy, the strange format really only makes sense as the second in a series, I think. I didn’t find Davey nearly as interesting as Dunstan Ramsay, the protagonist of Fifth Business, and was much more interested in his doctor, Joanna. Sadly, we don’t learn much about her or her story in The Manticore. However, Davies has this uncanny ability to write about the most mundane events as if they are the world’s most complex mysteries which, in a way, perhaps they are. The Manticore definitely held my interest in the series, and I’m eager to get to the final book in the trilogy, World of Wonders!
And that about wraps it up, I think. Whew!
I don’t think that Quite Early One Morning is a book I would normally choose for myself, but I was craving more short stories and Dylan Thomas is one of my boyfriend’s favorite authors, so that made me curious about him. I don’t know that I’d call the pieces in this book “short stories”, exactly; they are like short stories, memories, essays, and poetry all at once. Most of the pieces included in the book were well known in Thomas’ time, the 40’s and early 50’s, because they were read and broadcast over the radio in both the UK and the US. And they are beautiful.
The book is comprised of two distinct sections: the first is made up of autobiographical meanderings through Thomas’s childhood in Wales. The docks, the towns, the people–all described just perfectly and magically, with rumbling, spitting language– that I really felt I had a sense of the place. Thomas’s writing is strongly imbued with its own rhythm, and I was tempted to read aloud to feel the physicality and movement of his words. I didn’t at the time because I read most of it on an airplane and didn’t want to cause any disturbance, but I might go back at some point and try it.
The second part contains some of Thomas’s thoughts about older Welsh poets and their literary contributions. Though I wasn’t quite as interested in this part as I was in the first, Dylan Thomas’ writing kept me happy and engaged.
I would love to track down some recordings of his radio broadcasts so that I could hear these pieces read in his own voice. Though it certainly shines through the written word, I imagine there’s no real substitute for hearing it aloud.
If you’d like, you can read the title story (incidentally, my favorite in this collection) here, to give you an idea of his work. Enjoy!