“The Isle of Youth”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s second short story collection, published in 2013. I read the FSG Originals paperback edition from my library.

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 4 out of 5 stars (stories averaged).

 Times Read: 1

One of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Van den Berg never does the obvious thing. Whenever I thought I was ahead of the story, it turned back on me. None of these stories go where you think, none of them end where you think a short story should end. It’s exciting as a reader and it’s a great strength of van den Berg’s.

A feeling of truth fills each story – hidden deep, never discussed, but felt by many. The Third Hotel also had this effect on me. An author who can do it more than once is one to hold dear.

Van den Berg doesn’t supply answers to everything. People disappear in these tales and you won’t find out what happened to them. People die and you don’t know how, the whys are not spelled out. But she gives enough emotional information to make you care and understand. You will come to your own conclusions and every conclusion is correct.

While most of the female leads are in marriages – often troubled – the real connections here are between siblings. Brothers, sisters, twins; dead, alive, estranged.


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“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”

There Once Lived a Woman

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The first English-translated collection from prominent Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. I read a 2009 Penguin paperback (from the library).

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3 out of 5 stars (average).

Times Read: 1

The Introduction explains: From over a hundred stories we chose pieces with a common fantastic or mystical element (…) The stories in this volume were composed over the last thirty-plus years, but many of them are from the past decade (p.x).

As an entry to Petrushevskaya’s writing, this may have been a mistake. The collection becomes repetitive in mood and execution with a majority of stories ending on “it was all a dream”/ “dead the whole time” motifs. Full-on dream logic is frustrating; if anything can happen at any moment, there’s no tension other than wondering when the protagonist will realize they are asleep/dead. Also, unfortunately, some stories feel like confusing translations rather than an expression of Petrushevskaya’s style.

The language and plots have a timeless simplicity, making most stories feel like they could exist anywhere in the 19th or 20th century, but then Petrushevskaya surprises with the occasional reference to a cassette tape player or cell phone.

There are gems in here and most stories work on their own, it’s putting them up against so many of the same that weakens them. But the stories are so short that the duds breeze by. Continue reading

“Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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Yoko Ogawa’s 1998 novel built with short stories. I read my library’s 2013 Picador paperback translated by Stephen Snyder.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1.

The Plot:

Eleven first-person stories interweave to tell the dark events of a city.

Ogawa builds her stories on refreshingly simple language; short and to the point with touches of darkness, poignancy and surrealism. The reality within the fiction is challenged in fascinating ways (some stories are “written” by other characters, but those fictional characters interact with other “real” ones). It has a clever Pulp Fiction vibe without feeling showy or derivative.

An interesting thing about Ogawa’s style, which I didn’t notice until typing these notes: no characters are given names. At most we have a “Mrs. J” and “Dr. Y.” Otherwise, Ogawa sticks to simple pronouns or family positions (he, the woman, the father, her son, etc), which adds to the campfire, ghost story feel.

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Doris Lessing: Stories (Introduction)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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Thirty-five of Doris Lessing’s short stories, taken from four previous collections and published in 1978. I read a used first edition hardcover.

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2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

What a strange reading experience. Two hundred pages into Stories’ 625-page running length, I was thinking that I might have the rare 4- or 5-star short story collection on my hands. Then the 1-star stories began to creep in. I soon found myself turning on the book.

I need more than beautiful writing to stay engaged. I take no joy in reading an entire story about the weather in a park. I need plot or compelling characters.

Lessing’s greatest strength is showing her characters as humans with their own motivations, strengths and weaknesses. There are rarely villains in these stories, no matter whose viewpoint we follow. There are unlikeable characters but even then we often see where they are coming from.

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“Tales From Watership Down”

Tales From Watership

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


Richard Adams’ sort-of sequel/sort-of short story companion to Watership Down, published in 1996. I read a battered old 95-cent Avon paperback.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Tales is divided into three parts. Part 1 consists of one-shot short stories about legendary rabbit El-ahrairah. Part 2 tells the longer story of El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle’s return to their own warren after meeting the Black Rabbit. And Part 3 continues the story of Hazel and the Watership Down warren though their first winter and their interactions with other warrens.

In Watership Down, the “current” story of Hazel’s group was effortlessly interwoven with tales of El-ahrairah. I think Adams would have done the same thing here if he had written a full story for Hazel. But Part 3 has a woefully unfinished, published-from-a-dead-author’s-notes feel (which wasn’t the case at all). It introduces Flyairth, a doe who had been Chief Rabbit of a doe-led warren and hints excessively that the Watership warren is approaching a terrible encounter with the White Blindness and/or men, but Flyairth drops out of the story and no doom ever befalls the warren. They just putter around for a couple of chapters before the book ends.

The lack of a terrible climax is a pity (as odd as that sounds to people who love the characters); the best parts of Tales are when Adams goes dark: El-ahrairah’s near-death experience in “The Hole in the Sky”, a terrible rabbit-murder being played out through eternity in “The Rabbit’s Ghost Story,” and the massacre of an entire peaceful warren in “The Story of the Terrible Hay-Making.”

Ultimately, these are disjointed and incomplete sections for what could have been a good, very dark sequel to Watership Down.

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“Trial Balance” (Post 4/4)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[120] “The Funeral” (1937)

4.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Young Reba is fascinated with another girl’s funeral.

Dark and insane; a story that I can’t believe anyone got away with writing. The excessive “black” dialect must be the only thing keeping this from being a Southern Gothic classic. I refuse to tell you anything more about it. You have to read it.

[121]

A week ago the little girl who had died had merely been another child, like any other, but with death she had taken on a strange sort of importance.

(p.349)

[122]

When she remembered again the words the preacher had spoken as he stood beside the child’s coffin that very afternoon, it did not seem sensible that anybody would want to live in a world as harsh as this one when they could have, so easily, not only eternal happiness in heaven, but a magnificent funeral as well.

(p.352) Continue reading

“Trial Balance” (Post 3/4)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[80] “Bill’s Eyes” (1936)

4 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Blinded Bill is certain his eye operation from a world-famous doctor will be a success.

A near-perfect example of the author telling the reader everything they need to know while never explicitly saying it.


[81] “Geraldette” (1936)

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Despite what her neighbors think, Geraldette Harper does much more than sew.

[82] References:

“I don’t for the life of me know what she does with all that Battenburg and Mexican drawn-work after she finishes with it.”

(p.248)

I’m guessing Battenburg sewing refers to a pattern like a Battenberg/Battenburg cake: a sponge cake with a distinctive two-by-two check pattern.

Drawn thread work is a form of counted-thread embroidery based on removing theads from the warp and/or the weft of a piece of even-weave fabric. The remaining threads are grouped or bundled together into a variety of patterns.

[83]

He was a small man, with dainty hands and feet. His full, sensual mouth was tightly compressed, and his nostrils lifted and fell with his breath, like the lid of a pot which is worried at its edges by steam.

(p.250) Continue reading

“Trial Balance” (Post 2/4)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[34] “Miss Daisy” (1930)

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Harry worships Miss Daily as the purest soul in Reedyville until he hears her real thoughts.

[35]

Mrs. McArthur had a square flat face. She always wore gold earrings that went through her ears and fastened with a screw on the other side. The earrings were very heavy, and they pulled the bottoms of her ears down. I thought her face looked like a map of the United States with Florida on both sides.

(p.98 – 99)

[36]

Mr. Hemmes was tall and pale. He wore high starched collars and eyeglasses that hooked around one ear with a fine gold chair. I always had an idea that his head wasn’t fastened on his neck at all, but was only balanced on top of his collar like an egg in an egg cup. That Sunday I got to thinking how funny it would be if his head should roll off his collar and break on the floor, and I started laughing.

(p.103 – 104) Continue reading

“Trial Balance” (Post 1/4)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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The collected short works of William March, published by the University of Alabama Press. The stories have copyrights from 1929 – 1945; the collection (and Introduction by Rosemary M. Canfield-Reisman) is copyrighted 1989. 

4 out of 5 stars (collection).

Times Read: 2

These stories take only about ten minutes to read apiece (fifty-five stories in a five-hundred-page collection means an average of about 9 pages per story). Some are little more than snapshots of a scene; a slight expansion of March’s style in Company K (review).

March’s most-used settings are his fictional Reedyville (also the location of three of his novels) and tales of World War I soldiers which continue themes from Company K.

The stories maintain an impressively high, consistent quality considering this is a full collection of all of March’s short stories (save one) and not a cherry-picked “best of” collection. There are a couple of flubs but March is solid (if not exceptional) overall.

Rosemary M. Canfield-Reisman gives an excellent introduction, summing up March’s themes:

[March] was soon convinced that war, like religion, was a fraud perpetuated by society, which encourages man’s natural cruelty and destroyed the innocent.

(p.xiii)

 

Most March stories conclude with the perception of loss – loss of a cause, of an ideal, of a dream, of a life. (…)

In other stories, characters must face the fact that a dream, a personal goal, is lost forever, and with it, the motivation for living.

(p.xvi)

March isn’t afraid to play with convention and explore the line between fantasy and reality, the future and the past. The worst I can say for him is that his characterization of black characters is terrible. March makes them speak in an offensive dialect that no other southern character is given (“gwiner” for “going to”, etc). It comes off really shitty.

I’ll review the stories in the order they appear in the book (which also follows their copyright dates).

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Beaumont(h) – Introduction

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Settle in. We’re going to spend this month looking at the short fiction of Charles Beaumont (1929 – 1967).

Beaumont was a speculative short-story author and contributor for The Twilight Zone; credited on episodes like “Perchance to Dream,” “The Howling Man,” “Elegy,” and “Shadow Play,” (two of which showed up on my Twilight Zone Top 10). His early death cut him off before he could reach his full potential.

Beaumont’s style and technique improved through his short career, showing an author who admirably wanted to get better. Some authors find their voice right out of the gate (rare); some borrow and ape what they admire until they find themselves (most). Beaumont was one of the latter but he had the drive, imagination, and basic tool-box needed to continue to grow.

His best stories (which started landing around 1956) show an author who can wield confident, wicked joy as well as intense emotional honesty. Nailing both styles is rare indeed. At his weakest, you can see the machinery straining in his work – he’s not inspired, he’s not sure of his footing, but this is his job and, damnit, he’s going to write something today.

From the beginning, Beaumont understood the three elements needed to create a great speculative short story: A compelling lead, an intriguing “what-if,” and an ending that haunts the imagination. Understanding doesn’t mean hitting all three points consistently – almost no one can – but Beaumont usually managed two out of three, which sets him ahead of the pack.

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