Archive for the ‘Reviews–Short Stories’ Category

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All That May Become a Man by Louis Auchincloss

February 1, 2010

The literary world lost several of its favorite writers last week. I was dismayed to see that the news about Louis Auchincloss, despite his prolific output, was rather buried in the headlines. Ah, well. So it goes. Actually, I’ve never read anything by Auchincloss before, so when I was poking around looking for a good short story this weekend, I picked up my copy of Manhattan Monologues. Given his recent death and my recent reading of Edith Wharton (a writer to whom he is often compared), it seemed like a perfect fit. Would it be anticlimatic to say that I was rather disappointed in the story?

Unfortunately, I was. While the plot and the characters of All That May Become a Man were actually rather interesting, I found the writing style to be severley flat. The story concerns a young man, Ambrose, whose father was a wild, courageous, wealthy man. Ambrose grows up learning to idolize Teddy Roosevelt and to always put courage before personal feelings. As he grows older, though, Ambrose’s relationship with his father changes, and the story is really about Ambrose talking about that situation. Perhaps the “Monologues” part of the title was supposed to be taken very seriously, and that’s why I disliked the story so much. But the entire time, I felt like Ambrose was just telling things about his life instead of showing them.

I’m not going to give up on this collection yet, because the storytelling may improve. So far, it seems that Auchincloss may cover the same topics and people that Edith Wharton did, but he doesn’t do it nearly so elegantly. However, I did find this alternate review that seems to rather like the “monologue” style of writing. If you’ve never heard of or read Auchincloss before, this review is worth reading to get a different opinion.

In other bookish news, I finished Howards End last week. It was lovely and I miss the characters. I’ve nearly finished with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I am surprised with how quickly it reads. What a great cast of characters.

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Ghosts by Edwidge Danticat

January 25, 2010

Until she won the “Genius” grant last year, I had never heard of Edwidge Danticat. (I know.) I thought she sounded like a great author, and a friend of mine who works in Haiti highly recommended her writing. The tragedy last week made me want to read her even more because I wanted to learn about the country’s culture and people. I was already pretty familiar with the everyday tragedies that occurred in Haiti long before the earthquake struck, but I had never read anything written by people who were actually Haitian. Luckily, Eva’s new blog template pointed me to one of Danticat’s short stories, Ghosts. It’s available online, but I fished out my old copy of The New Yorker issue. I’m so glad I did–this story is remarkably well written. It’s too bad that I didn’t give this story a try when I first read the rest of the issue in November 2008. What made me skip over it, I wonder?

The story focuses on Pascal, a young Haitian growing up in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. He isn’t interesting in joining the neighborhood gang, but that seems to only make his life more difficult. Danticat tells Pascal’s story in such a matter of fact, straightforward way, that I found myself accidentally slipping into thinking that I was reading another one of The New Yorker’s typical narrative nonfiction pieces, and that this was an actual story of an actual boy that a journalist met in Haiti. That’s how realistic these characters are! If you’re looking for a good introduction to Danticat (that’s also online for free), this would definitely be the place to start. I noticed that Danticat wrote the introduction to my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now I’m even more excited to read that.

This week, Danticat has written a rather emotional story for The New Yorker about the earthquake. I haven’t it yet, as I’m waiting for my issue to arrive in the mail. If you are intrigued, you can read it online or buy a copy of this week’s issue. If you poke around that site, you’ll also find the transcript of an online talk she did with the magazine today. All really interesting stuff.

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Short Story Time: Night of the Quicken Trees

December 3, 2009

This story is another in the collection Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan. Although I was rather ambivalent about this story when I immediately finished it a few days ago, I find that I like it more in retrospect. The story is preceded by an excerpt from something called “Feet Water,” which Keegan refers to as an Irish fairy tale. I looked for it in my Children’s Book of Irish Fairy Tales, and couldn’t find any mention of it, but I’ll take her at her word. The fairy tale seems to be about a superstition about water used to cleanse people’s feet at the end of the day. Supposedly, one must always throw the washing water out at the end of the day so as not to bring bad luck into the house. What an interesting way to begin a story–so charming yet also rather ominous.

The actual story begins with the introduction of Margaret–a superstitious woman who has just moved into the house of a recently deceased priest. The house is a duplex, and she happens to live next to an eccentric widower who lives with a goat. It really is one of the oddest set ups. As one might imagine, something weird happens with Margaret and her “feet water,” and the story proceeds from there.

I am surprised that this story has grown on me, but I have found myself chuckling about the goat or pondering the unique Irish superstitions and fairy tales. This story is surely one of the strongest in this collection. (I’ve read all but one so far.) The writing is beautiful, and since I didn’t give a teaser yesterday, I’ll provide one today–a part of the story’s first paragraph.

Margaret Flusk had neither hat nor rubber boots nor a man. Her brown hair was long, flowing in loose strands like seaweed down her back. She wore a big sheepskin coat that fitted her to perfection and when she looked out at the mortal world it was with the severity of a woman who has endured much and survived. When she moved to Dunagore she was not yet forty but it was past the time when she could bear a child. That power had left her years ago and always she blamed it on that night of the quicken trees.

From The Night of the Quicken Trees, a story in Walk the Blue Fields: Stories by Claire Keegan, p. 131.

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No Advantages by Alice Munro

October 28, 2009

hardovermunroI can hardly believe this, but it took me three nights to read this short story. I read it for a few minutes every night before I went to sleep, but it took me three nights! Crazy.

When this book originally came out, I decided to wait for the paperback release because I had just discovered Munro (through the excellent story collection Open Secrets) and I figured that she had dozens of other story collections that I had yet to read. This turned out to be a bad idea, as the cover for the paperback book is horrid and has a headless woman on it. So when I saw this hardcover in the remainders section of my local bookstore, I snatched it up.paperbackmunro

Munro introduces this collection by warning the reader that these stories are different than her typical works based in Canada. Instead, these stories are much more personal and focus on Munro’s research into her family history, going as far back as Scotland in the 1500s. The result, judging only from the first story, is something interesting but also odd. No Advantages felt like reading a blog entry about someone’s genealogy hobby. But still, the writing was excellent and the characters were amusing, even if it felt a bit like a history lesson. I am looking forward to reading more of the stories in this collection, especially because the second half of the book is supposed to focus more on stories that weren’t about family history but simply felt more personal to Munro.

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Sunday Short Stories: Maria by Elizabeth Bowen

September 28, 2009

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I got so used to reading my short stories on Sunday nights before I went to the sleep that I forgot that I would need to read my weekly story earlier in the day if I intend to write about them on Sundays! So here’s a little write-up about the random story that I chose to read last night, Maria by Elizabeth Bowen. It’s in an old used book that I own called The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. It was published in 1981 and claims to be the first place that her complete stories are published. It also has some nice illustrations.

Maria is an odd little story about a teenaged orphan girl who is sent to live with strangers when her aunt and uncle go on vacation. The family she stays with is strangely nice to her despite her rudeness, so Maria tries to find ways to get attention. The story follows Maria as she attempts some minor ways of bad behavior, but then ends rather abruptly when Maria nearly misses getting into a huge scrape. I found this story charming but vague and rather directionless. It does, however, have that fantastic prose that I love and that Elizabeth Bowen writes so well.

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Sunday Stories: The Long and Painful Death by Claire Keegan

September 20, 2009

WalkBlueFields“The Long and Painful Death” is a short story near the end of the collection by Claire Keegan called Walk the Blue Fields. It is unfortunate that this is the first story that I’m writing about here, because I feel that it differs quite a bit from the other stories in the collection that I’ve read. However, I still enjoyed the narrative and the writing. I simply just don’t feel that it is a good representation of the stories in this book.

In this story, a writer who is temporarily living in Heinrich Böll’s Irish house finds herself unable to write because of an intrusion by an unwanted visitor. In retaliation, the author later writes a story about the visitor dying a long and painful death.

There were parts of this story that resonated with me, like the writer’s frustration that the impending visitor has filled her day with chores and anxiety that make writing impossible. I also enjoyed how Keegan explored the idea of revenge. The writer’s form of revenge is the best kind–it’s not destructive, and it helps her rediscover her ability to write. Compared to some of the other forms of revenge that we’ve seen in this book, especially the fire in “The Forester’s Daughter,” writing a cruel story seems harmless and maybe even productive.

The only part of this story that irked me was that it appeared autobiographical. It almost felt as if the story were a journal entry that only required minor editing. I usually don’t mind an author using autobiographical information, but in this case, the discrepancy with the other stories just felt jarring. The setting of the other stories in this collection is in an ethereal, eternal Ireland. This story seems like it could have taken place anywhere, with any writer. Sure, it was an important plot point that the house was famous, but the story could easily have been picked up and plopped down in Robert Frost’s house and would have worked just as well. I suppose that in the other stories, I’ve felt that Ireland was one of the characters, and it this one, it was simply a backdrop.