Tag Archives: Short Stories

Reading notes 2 – Feat. Edmund de Waal, Kazuro Ishiguro and Juli Zeh

A little while ago I did this post of mini reviews which I found rather a good way of catching up with myself. Sometimes a girl is rushing around so much she realises she’s read lots of books that she hasn’t gotten around to reviewing yet!

I don’t know about you but I find it’s quite therapeutic jotting down thoughts in shorthand sometimes. Here are those virtual post-it’s again…

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

3.5 stars3.5/5

Synopsis: 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined.

Dark Matter, by Juli Zeh

4 stars4/5

Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But after graduation, their lives took very different paths; while Oskar holds a prestigious research post in Geneva, Sebastain worries that he hasn’t lived up to his intellectual promise, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro

3 stars3/5

In a sublime story cycle, Kazuo Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the ‘hush-hush floor’ of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede.

*dusting off hands* Well that’s my little wrap up for the week!

Have you read any of these books. Did you find The Hare with the Amber Eyes what you expected? Have you been lulled by Ishiguro’s short stories or baffled by Juli Zeh’s physics-themed murder mystery?

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Discovering Daphne Readalong #4

4 stars 4/5

Thanks to Simon lending me his library copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on Monday (after I was able to hunt out my own last weekend), I am able to conclude Discovering Daphne! This copy might have travelled some 200 miles from its home in Manchester, but within the pages of this short story collection I travelled much further, from Venice to Israel, Crete to Ireland.

Don't Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 paperback edition (first published as a collection in 1971), 272 pages - loan

Don’t Look Now is the first story, and the most famous (made into a film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy in the 1970s), was a re-read for me, yet it lost nothing in the telling. I decided on a whim to read all the stories in a muddled-up order instead of one after the other, which I usually do.  I feel it was rather apt to finish Discovering Daphne with the spooky Don’t Look Now on Halloween! Daphne du Maurier is a mistress of atmosphere and as she does in Rebecca where she takes the reader through the gardens of Manderley, she conjures the labyrinthine streets of Venice, romantic by day, haunting and oppressive by night. A couple are on holiday in this beautiful city, there trying to forget the loss of their little girl and mend their relationship, but the story takes a turn for the unusual when they bump into two strange old ladies. Don’t Look Now is probably my favourite short story, or at least it’s my favourite short spooky story. Luckily I hadn’t seen the film the first time I read this (although I have now and I have to admit it’s rather dated but creepy in the way that 70’s horror movies almost inherently are), so I was quite taken aback by the nasty little twist at the end and I found it almost as suspenseful the second time around. This is a brilliant, chilling tale.

Not After Midnight is about a schoolmaster who takes a holiday in Crete. Looking forward to enjoying painting the Mediterranean seascape, he finds that his peace and quiet is shattered by an over-loud American man, named Stoll who is staying at the same hotel with his long-suffering wife. As the story develops, the schoolmaster has a disconcerting feeling that something is not right on his idyllic island. When I first picked up this collection of stories and read Not After Midnight perhaps I was just not in the right mood because I found it a bit dull, but for some reason the second time around it really unsettled me. I think I missed the little hints of what was to come when I read it before and this time I was really absorbed. It is a strange little tale and perhaps would lose something for a reader with no understanding of Greek myth but I really enjoyed it.

In A Border Line Case a young aspiring actress, goes on a journey to Ireland to find an old friend of her recently deceased father. While on the Emerald Isle she is practically kidnapped by the locals and spends an unusual night with her father’s old comrade. I don’t want to give anything away but suffice to say this is one of the more shocking tales in the series! I’m not quite sure whether to think it’s a little too bizarre or just brilliantly nasty.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Jerusalem in The Way of the Cross but wasn’t really gripped by the storyline. All the characters were horrible apart from poor hormonal Mrs Foster and pathetic Miss Dean. This doesn’t normally put me off but I think that perhaps there were just too many different personalities in a short story for me to really be invested in what was happening with them.

The Breakthrough was a curious experimental piece – a mix of the spiritual and scientific (something that du Maurier also plays with in The House on the Strand.) It wasn’t quite my cup of tea and I also wasn’t convinced by how quickly the main character came to believe in the research that he was doing, but it is original and I liked the idea that something amazing could be discovered unbeknown to the rest of civilisation in a little backwater somewhere.

Although some stories in this collection stand out much more for me than others, overall I think it’s a perfect way to dip into du Maurier’s work. It is also interesting to read because it was written much later than her better known novels, so feels quite modern. If you like a good scary story then it’s worth buying for Don’t Look Now and some of the others in the collection are just as dark if not more so. My advice is to make you’ve got a nice cup of tea to take away the chills after reading this one.

The Guardian also chose Don’t Look Now as a reading choice for October – you might enjoy heading over to read the comments and commentary here, or read this excellent review by Simon, my lovely Discovering Daphne co-host.

Did you join in with the Don’t Look Now readalong or have you perhaps been tempted to pick up a copy?

Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon

3.5 stars3.5/5

A gift from my Uncle (thanks Uncle T!), Novels in Three Lines is the perfect book to keep on your bedside table to dip into. No vast swathes of convoluted prose here, only epic stories in miniature penned by a master of brevity.

New York Review Books, 2007 paperback edition, 208 pages - gift

The three-line “novels” contained in this book are snippets of news, known as “fait-divers” in French, which were published in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin during the year 1906. The collection brings together 1,220 anecdotal scraps which tell of present-day events, dramatic crimes, tragedies, political stories and cover a whole world of perverse goings-on. They are almost haiku-like in the way that they sum-up so briefly, conveying events with pin-point accuracy, each with a sardonic edge.

Novels in Three Lines, is an interesting book to read in the context of the age of Twitter, which as well as being a communication device and a platform for people to broadcast themselves, has become a way of receiving news in the most immediate and abrupt way. In an era where people are overloaded with information, we often look for shorter sharper, quicker ways of absorbing it. Fénéon would have had a million followers on his Twitter account!

“Emilienne Moreau, of Plaine-Saint-Denis, had thrown herself in the drink. Then she leaped four floors. Still alive, but she’ll re-consider.”

Some of the snippets are simply FYIs:

“Some murdered women: Mme Gouriau, Mme Josserand, Mme Thiry, 24, 69, 72, of Coatméal, Saint-Maurice Sorbey (Finistere, Loire, Meuse).”

Others give news of disgruntled workers and outbreaks of disease. There also accidental tragedies which are both ludicrous and pitiable such as the woman who accidentally stabbed herself while balancing on a swing with scissors in her hand. The stories together paint quite a grim portrait of early Twentieth Century France – who on earth said things were safer in the old days!?

Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, by Paul Signac (1890) via giganticmag.wordpress.com

This book is a good little gift for someone who likes curiosities and it’s also a clever example of how it is possible to get a message across with just a sentence or two. This review is probably an illustration of how I have yet to learn the art of brevity!

Do you like your information distilled or in detail?

The Doll, by Daphne Du Maurier

4.5 stars4.5/5

The short stories collected in this new Virago edition of The Doll were only recently discovered and thank goodness they were!

The Doll, Daphne Du Maurier

Virago Press, paperback, 2011 edition, 224 pages - review copy.

As a big fan of Daphne Du Maurier, I found it fascinating to read her early work and gain an insight into the author who went on to write the wonderful Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

I was quite surprised by some of the stories in the collection. The title work, The Doll is unsettling, and… I want to say racy! Du Maurier explores obsession and unrequited love and finishes the tale with a disturbing finale.

The opening story – East Wind, was one of my favourites. The lives of the inhabitants of a remote island are changed forever when a ship arrives. It breezes in, the sailors bringing with them drink and debauchery. The islanders are sucked into a sort of haze, so that when the wind changes and the ship finally leaves, the damage is irreparable.

Piccadilly and Maisie both feature prostitutes. Maisie spends a moment to reflect and dream about a better life before being sucked back into the game. She sees a vision of her future self, but blocks it out preferring to stay with her head in the sand. In Piccadilly, a young girl is led astray by the thief, she has fallen in love with. Well, is she lead astray? She sees signs, that she believes are compelling her along a certain path. Is she stupidly accepting or just resigned to the inevitable when she sees a message in red neon at the end of the platform?

The tale that really gave me the shivers was Tame Cat. Without giving away the main thread of the story, I can say that the main character is a girl who discovers that growing into an attractive young woman is not necessarily as lovely as she expects.

There were a couple of depressing, anecdotal stories about relationships, which seemed cynical for the sake of it – perhaps Daphne was just working out some issues! Otherwise, this collection is as chilling as any of Du Maurier’s other works. For me it is as if in these early stories, she serves up in individual dollops the ideas that she subsequently brought into her later novels. A compelling read for any lover of Du Maurier and a fascinating introduction for those not yet inducted.

Are you a lover of Daphne Du Maurier or are you yet to discover her?

Look out for another Daphne Du Maurier related post going up today with a special announcement from Savidge Reads and myself. You can also read his thoughts on The Doll over at his blog.

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars4/5

After so enjoying two other editions from the Penguin Mini Classics set, I bought a copy of The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson. What a curious collection! Of the five stories in the book, I found three brilliant and the other two a little baffling.

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, 2011 edition (paperback), 70 pages - own purchase.

The highlights for me were the shortest stories The Lottery, Charles and The Witch. All three sent shivers down my spine. In Charles and The Witch the stories are set in quite an ordinary situation, but as you read on, Jackson introduces an element of unease and plants an uncomfortable idea about what might be happening. These two stories also centre around the behaviour of children and what they might be capable of. The Lottery is more about community and the ability of the collective to affect the will of an individual.

The Tooth is the longest story in the book and I freely admit that I didn’t ‘get it’. It describes the experience of a young woman who travels to the city on her own to have her tooth extracted. I found it a little disorientating – which incidentally, is probably the point. In her drugged up, post-op state the woman experiences dreamlike moments of confusion. I thought it was evocative but something was missing for me because it was a little too abstract. I felt the same also with the final story – The Intoxicated.

I think that it is actually to be expected when reading stories designed to be disturbing that a reader should be more affected by some than others, if only because certain ideas will make a specific person feel more uneasy than others. As a collection I thought The Toothwas a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.

More Mini Moderns: You can read my reviews of other Mini Moderns – Children on their Birthdays, by Truman Capote (4/5), and Through The Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (5/5), and see a list of other blogger’s reviews of this excellent series at the Curious Book Fans blog. Savidge Reads also read The Tooth and loved it.

Have you read any Shirley Jackson stories?

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskya

5 stars5/5

Wow – what a spooky and unexpected little collection this is! Possibly, sandwiching my sleeping time with reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Through the Wall was a little ill-considered as I had some slightly odd dreams last night.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 69 pages - review copy.

I had never heard of the author, although Petrushevskaya is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest living writers and was so controversial that for decades, her writing was banned in the Soviet Union. Reading stories like this make me grateful for whoever decided to translate them and I am curious to read the disturbingly entitled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby which is a collection of nineteen short stories.

 

I’m tempted to liken Petrushevskya’s stories to those of Angela Carter, because they are dark fairy tales, reminiscent of the style of those in The Bloody Chamber. However, the tales in Through the Wall feel much more of this world – albeit this world, seen through a distorted glass.

The Cabbage Patch Mother for example is the tale of a woman who has a tiny child named Dewdrop, who never grows. She is told to set her aside and forget her. Later she discovers that Dewdrop, who she placed amongst the leaves of a cabbage has become a full-size, mewling, clumsy real-life baby. This was the story I found most heart-breaking, as it is evidently an allegory for the experience of a woman who has undergone an abortion in the past and can’t forget the baby she might have had.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Click the image to read a short interview with the author in the LA times

Marilena’s secret is the story of a woman who is “so fat she couldn’t fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway took up the whole width of the escalator.” It turns out that Marilena is in fact two normal sized women, turned into one by a wizard. She becomes rich and famous for her unusual stature but begins to lose her real inner-selves as she is encouraged to become a poster girl for her husband’s dieting clinic. A tragi-comic tale where the manipulative husband eventually gets his come-uppance.

These are my favourite two of the five fantastic stories in this collection. The stories sound barmy, and yes there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but Petrushevskaya’s tales at their heart are real human experiences of grief, love and loss. They are dark and melancholy stories but each has a resolution and tells of human resilience.

By telling each story as a fairy-tale Pertrushevskaya somehow amplifies the impact of each situation. Isn’t it true that sometimes the most difficult experiences in life feel quite surreal?

What stories have you read that surprised you lately?

Children on Their Birthdays, by Truman Capote

4 stars4/5

Ever since I read In Cold Blood a couple of years ago, I’ve been a big fan of Truman Capote.

Children on Their Birthdays, Truman Capote, Penguin Modern Classics

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 73 pages - review copy.

I love his keen observational style and wicked way with words. I was pleased to get my hands on this Penguin Mini Modern Classic, which felt like perfect reading for a hectic week and addled brain!

This edition contains three short stories, each of which represent a moment in time:

Children on Their Birthdays, opens by announcing that Miss Bobbit, a girl of eleven has been run down by the six-o’clock bus. Miss Bobbit has had a memorable impact on the community. The ladylike little girl creates a ripple in the Alabama backwater, attracting the attention of the boys of the town with her sophisticated way of dressing and behaving. She has aspirations of being a hollywood star, and although she is hugely precocious, there is genuinely something special and sweet about her as a character.

A Christmas Memory explores the tender relationship between a seven year old and a sixty-something lady, who is sprightly and makes whisky-spiked fruitcakes. Ingredients for the famous fruitcakes are bought with money scraped together including pennies collected by squashing errant flies. The making of the fruitcake is a special ritual in the build up to Christmas and kind whisky-supplying shopkeepers get extra cups of raisins in their portion.

A Tree of Night is about a young girl travelling back from her Uncle’s funeral. On the train, she encounters an old, rather odd-couple who become rather more sinister as the journey goes on.

The actual subject of the stories is almost secondary, in my mind, to the mood that Capote creates and the vivid character descriptions. Capote creates little observational pieces that capture a fleeting moment in time and impart a sense of nostalgia, or impress a particular feeling on the reader, whether that be warm and fuzzy (A Christmas Memory), or cold and creeping (A Tree of Night).

The three snippets below, one from each story are examples of the writing that I so admire.

“…a firefly hour, blue as milkglass…” (Children on Their Birthdays)

“…the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels…” (A Christmas Memory)

“…icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth.” (A Tree of Night)

I would definitely recommend this little collection. If you are a Capote devotee, you will surely enjoy them and if you haven’t read any of his writing this is a great way to dip your toe in the water.

Truman Capote with puppy

On a side note, I don’t often enjoy reading collections of short stories, but something about just having two or three in one volume appeals. As with food, perhaps it’s nice just to have a few bites as an appetiser?!

Have you read any Capote and if so what would you recommend? Which authors do you particularly admire for their way with words?

Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link

Beware. The book pictured below is a Pandora’s box of tall tales and weird creatures…

Since I read Pretty Monsters over two weeks ago I’ve been taking a little while to consider how I feel about it. Link’s collection of short stories contains ten different tales, each of which are totally original. The reader is invited to suspend disbelief and is drawn into a world where magical characters and objects are part of everyday life. The first story introduces us to a young boy who digs up what he thinks is the grave of his dead girlfriend in order to retrieve his poems – only to wish he hadn’t. Then there is the story of two twins who live in a creepy old house and whose babysitter has a strange magic hat. In another tale a two young children are sold to wizards who never seem to come out of the lofty towers in which they live.

My reaction to each of the stories varied greatly, which is probably not surprising given how different they all are to each other. If anything, the only common thread between them is that they are all, well…strange. Some stories, I loved such as The Faery Handbag, (how could I not love a Scrabble playing grandmother with a magical handbag?), but others I couldn’t to get to grips with. I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read the stories separately rather than in succession. At times, the mental effort of jumping into a totally new world which, in some cases were very obscure left me feeling a little exasperated. There was one story about aliens that I gave up on in a matter of moments.

Pretty Monsters is a fascinating read. I think most likely I would have loved this when I was younger and had a better imaginative faculty, as well as more time on my hands to ponder the more befuddling stories. I remember being fascinated when I read Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber or The Virago Book of Fairy Tales which tick the ‘quirky’ box in a similar way. Link’s writing and the scope of her vision is something special and she conjures up weird, beautiful characters. So while I wasn’t quite in the mood for such a mental work-out (shame on me), I would like to revisit her of the stories individually in the future. Perhaps on a cold winter’s night…

My rating:

7 out of 10

What books have you read that tested your imagination?