Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coming up... in 2012


     I started 2011 with just about 2 posts on my blog and no idea how this whole blogging thing worked. Over the course of this year I’ve read a lot of books and read about a lot of books on the hundreds of amazing blogs I follow. The book blogging community has been such a nurturing and friendly place for a bookworm like me. Thank you all for reading my blog, following, commenting, appreciating and disagreeing. It’s been such fun so far and I’m certain it’s going to be even better in the New Year.

   While I didn’t do any challenges in 2011, I did enjoy being a part of the odd blog hop or taking part in an event or meme as and when my schedule allowed. In 2012, I intend to get my reading and blogging a bit more organised. That is the plan at any rate; we’ll see how it actually plays out :)

   There are so many great challenges and memes happening out there, it’s tempting to take them all on but I’ve tried to keep things (more or less) sensible. So here are all the challenges, memes and events that I plan to do in 2012.


  A Classics Challenge hosted by November’s Autumn.




The goal is to read 7 classics in 2012 with no more than 3 being re-reads. A very interesting spin on the challenge is a blog hop which will happen on the 4th of each month where participants can answer a prompt regarding the classic they are reading. Sounds like fun. I will do the blog hop as often as I can and also do book reviews although that isn't a requirement. The classics I plan to read are:
  1.  Animal Farm by George Orwell
  2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  3. Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  4. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster
  5. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  6. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
  7. The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
 Shakespeare Reading Month: January 2012 hosted by A literary Odyssey




I've read most of Shakespeare’s great tragedies and histories but sadly have had very little acquaintance with his comedies. I hope to remedy that by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also want to re-read some of his sonnets that I read ages ago and maybe some that I haven’t read yet. You can also read any works about Shakespeare so maybe I’ll check out something in that vein. 


    Greek Classics Challenge 2012 hosted by Howling Frog Books.


I've already posted about this here but I thought it bears repeating. I've modestly chosen the challenge level Sophocles ie. 1-4 books. So far I've acquired Antigone by Sophocles and Republic by Plato. I’m going to try doing 1 or 2 more if time isn't my enemy.


Agatha Christie Reading Challenge



The idea is to read a Christie a month and link up here. I have been doing this on and off in 2011, I hope to be more regular in 2012


 Short stories on Wednesday hosted by Risa at Breadcrumb Reads




This has been a great reason to read more short stories and has led to me discovering so many new authors (and some new blogs too). It’s going to be even more exciting in 2012 in its new and improved version. I’ll be joining in as often as I can.


       I also want to try and read some Irish stories for Irish Short Story Week over at Mel U’s The Reading Life. I have no clue where to even begin though. Suggestions will be much appreciated.

     So, that’s the lot I think. Reading back over this list is making me sweat a bit right now because I have no idea how I’m going to do all this with a house move coming up, weddings in the family and several trips planned in 2012. But I’m an old hand at over-committing so I won’t be deterred. My only hope is that I’m left with enough space and time to read books that I feel like reading even if they aren't a part of any of the challenges.
      
    Now all that’s left for me to do is to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. See you in a bright and sparkling 2012.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories have been on my must-read list for a long time now but I never got around to it. Last month I read Hemmingway’s A Movable Feast which shows Fitzgerald in a rather comedic and mostly unflattering light. But even Hemmingway has nothing but praise for Fitzgerald’s body of work. So I was wondering where to start when I stumbled on to Laurie’s blog Fitzgerald Musings and saw that she had mentioned stories that she thought were Fitzgerald’s finest.  Since Laurie’s blog is named after, and dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I figured I could do no better than to start with her recommendations. I’m glad I did. Onto the stories.

Winter Dreams
Dexter is an enterprising and sensible young man. Except when it comes to Judy Jones the beautiful heartbreaker. The story itself is a familiar one; we’ve all heard, read or seen it before. The beauty lies in the telling. I’ve heard it said that this story was sort of a test drive of the Great Gatsby idea. In any case it was a very well told and memorable story. Here it is if you'd like to read it online.

Bernice Bob’s Her Hair
Bernice is a well bred but socially inept young girl who’s visiting her cousin Marjorie who is hugely popular. Marjorie reluctantly gives Bernice a mini-makeover and suddenly Bernice starts to get a lot more attention from the guys. It’s all going great until a miffed Marjorie calls her bluff. I really liked the way Fitzgerald constructed Bernice’s character. I find it rare that a male author can describe a female mind without it sounding fake or stilted. Fitzgerald really nails it here. Check it out online.

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
This is such fantastical tale, sort of Arabian nights meets a Rider Haggard adventure. John T Unger is visiting his friend Percy Washington. But Percy is not from a run-of-the-mill wealthy family. For one, they live on a giant, hidden diamond and do bizarre things to keep it hidden. As much as this is thrilling and hilarious it is also a satire on the isolation and the ethical void that the very wealthy seem to live in. You can read it here.

The Offshore Pirate
How often have you read/seen/heard a romantic comedy which was equal parts romantic and funny without the extreme cheesiness that so often plagues the genre? Fitzgerald shows us how it’s done in The Offshore Pirate.  It about an obstinate and free spirited young girl who falls for a mysterious pirate. I don’t want to tell you anymore about the story because it would ruin it for you. Read it here and enjoy.

The Rich Boy
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created — nothing.” When a story begins with a line like this, you know it’s going to be good. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain in a few sentences, this struck me as a really sad story. Not because anything bad happens but because the gradual decline of Anson Hunter, the protagonist, is almost like watching the slow decay of a magnificent edifice. Funny when you think about it because Anson is a privileged man, adored by women, genuinely loved by at least two of them; hardly an underdog. He is in fact the sort of arrogant, spoilt, rich kid you should hate instantly. But you don’t. It’s amazing. Read it here.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that these are Fitzgerald’s best stories. For one, I haven’t read enough of his stories to judge and for another, I don’t believe you can rank and grade stories. What this list does, however, is to give you an idea of the amazing range and variety of Fitzgerald’s work. No two stories are alike but they’re all really satisfying.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne



When I first decided to read Nathaniel Hawthorne for the ongoing Transcendentalist month (hosted by Jillian of A Room of One’s Own), I was thinking of reading The Blithedale Romance which, I believe is an openly anti-transcendentalist work and based largely on Hawthorne’s interaction with the transcendentalists (Nice review of it here). However, The Scarlett Letter has been on my TBR for ages now so I decided to give that a go first. I found that while it doesn’t mention or discuss Transcendentalism and its principles, it does take a diametrically opposite view of the human condition. While the transcendentalists believed in the inherent good in every human being, Hawthorne stresses on the heart of darkness that lies within every seemingly pure human. He implies that each of us is bound by the time and society that he/she is a part of and an individual cannot possibly transcend that. Hawthorne also mentions his time at brook farm in the introductory Custom-House Sketch and he clearly thinks the transcendentalists he encountered at the farm were well-intentioned but deluded.

The Scarlett Letter is set in a village in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Hester Prynne, a young woman bearing an infant, is charged with adultery and is condemned to wear her shame in the form of the scarlet letter A on her bosom for the rest of her life. She refuses to name her partner in crime although the identity of the culprit is made obvious to the reader quite early on. There is also Hester’s wronged husband who conceals his true identity and torments his wife’s lover.  The product of the adulterous affair is a little girl named Pearl who is the personification of the scarlet letter, her mother’s shame and punishment.

There is an unrelenting pathos to the story that never lightens. All three of the principle characters are bound by their guilt, hating and pitying each other by turns. Hawthorne keeps redemption out of their grasp at all times. Even the child is almost used as an instrument of torture, tormenting her mother and even her lover. The atmosphere of the story is consistently grey and grim mirroring the sternness and joylessness of the puritanical society that it is set in. This is not to suggest that the book is boring. Never that. The characters and their internal conflicts are fascinating, as is the descriptions of 17th century Massachusetts under the puritans. It’s an age and society that I haven’t read much of and I enjoyed this peek into it.

Hawthorne’s attitude towards women is very puzzling. On the one hand he does invest Hester with strength, capability and good sense and on the other he seems to reinforce the stereotype of an immoral Eve leading a virtuous Adam to sin and his ultimate downfall.  Still, Hawthorne was a product of a different era and it would be unfair to judge him by modern standards. Bottom-line is, he tells a powerful story and he tells it very well.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Dec 1-4

Literary Blog Hop

It’s time for the monthly Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  This blog hop is open to blogs that primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion. This month’s question is:

What work of literature would you recommend to someone who doesn't like literature? 

I generally tend not to recommend literature to those who have no interest in it.I think people should just  read what they like. Read and let read. However, there’s nothing wrong with nudging someone towards literary fiction if the person is looking to explore different genres. I can’t think of any one book that would fit the bill since ‘literature’ is a very general term, encompassing so many different types of books. I think I’d recommend books based on what the person already likes. So, for a friend who reads a lot of romance novels, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters would be good picks while still keeping within their comfort zone. For someone who loves dystopian fiction I’d recommend Orwell’s 1984. If horror is your choice then I’d steer you towards Edgar Allen Poe and all those who find literature too ‘serious’ should definitely check out some of the great humorists like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. Lastly, when I run into anyone who wants to try literature but is intimidated by huge tomes, I always recommend they try out some short stories which are an easy and painless way to test the waters.

So that’s my two cents. I’m eager to read everyone else’s take on the subject. Happy Hopping people.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Greek Classics Challenge 2012


I'm joining in on the Greek Classic Challenge for 2012 hosted by Howling Frog Books. I've read The Iliad and The Odyssey in my college days but have had nothing to do with ancient Greeks since then. I plan to remedy that next year.

There are multiple challenge levels to choose from and I've chosen the rather timid Sophocles level which requires me to read 1 to 4 books. I'm not sure yet about the books I'll be reading and thankfully we aren't required to post a list but I'm certain Sophocles and Plato will figure on my reading list next year. Exciting times :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Top Ten Stories of All Time



A couple of days ago, I came across this post on Flavorwire  listing, what they call, the top 10 short stories of all time. Now that is just the kind of over ambitious claim that is designed to raise hackles all over the place. Obviously, no one can condense centuries’ worth of short stories into one handy little countdown and no two people can possibly agree over the stories that ought to make it to such a list. Of the top of my head, I could think of at least fifty stories that deserve to be on a top ten list. But here’s the thing; I love lists. So I had to check this out and having done that, I had to read all of the stories on the list that I hadn’t read yet. That made for a busy two days but it was largely worth it. Unfortunately, there was one story on the list that I could not find online or in my library so I offer my opinion on the (allegedly) top nine stories of all time. The stories are listed in random order on Flavorwire, there is no best or worst. I’m listing them here in the order in which I read them which is pretty close to the original list.

1. “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” by JD Salinger
I’ve read this story as part of Nine Stories by JD Salinger and blogged about it here. It is one of Salinger’s better known stories. It’s about an unnamed sergeant who meets a gentle young girl called Esme just before he goes off to war. The myth of Esme sustains him through the squalor of war and its aftermath.
I didn’t find this story online, although admittedly, I didn’t look very hard since I had already read it. Do read it though, it’s a classic.

2. "Silver Water" by Amy Bloom
A woman talks about Rose, her beautiful and talented sister and Rose’s slow and painful descent into madness. The story also looks at Rose’s family, who are grappling to deal with their new reality. It’s tough to talk of such things and not be morbid or grim. Amy Bloom manages to make it funny and poignant at the same time. Read it online here.

3. “The Dead” by James Joyce
Garbriel and his wife are at their aunts’ annual bash. It’s not a good night for Gabriel and life of the party he is not. This is also the night when his wife chooses to tell him about her past relationship.
This isn’t my favourite story from the Dubliners (I’ve posted about my favourites here). Firstly, it really pushes the boundaries of the form in terms of length. Also, I found it hard to feel anything much for any of the characters. You can find the story here.

4. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The title tells you, very literally and explicitly, what the story is about.  Marquez’s fallen angel is very different from Tolstoy’s (What men live by?). The old man is anything but ‘angelic’ and is temporarily turned into a freak show. I urge you to read this here. It’s a master class in magic realism.

5. “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham
Staying with the angels theme, White Angel is about two brothers growing up in Cleveland in the sixties and their experiences with drugs, sex, growing up and death.
I was a bit disappointed in this one. When I started to read it, I expected it to be a very impactful story, but somewhere along the way it started to feel very mediocre. I’ve read stories like this before and really didn’t find anything special here. Still, if you’d like to try it for yourself, find it here.

6. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
A southern family on a road trip run into an escaped convict, The Misfit with disastrous results. I don’t want to give away anymore of this iconic story although it is more shocking than suspenseful. Give yourself a treat and listen to this free audio of Flannery O’Connor reading out the story herself.

7. “Emergency” by Denis Johnson
This is a strange little story that somehow manages to be captivating. It’s about two men who work at a hospital and their crazy drug-induced reality. It takes a bit of focus to keep up with the alternating realities. One doesn’t mind it though because the story is entertaining even while it’s confusing.
I heard this story as a podcast, narrated beautifully by Tobias Wolff. 

8. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
There is something vaguely similar about ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Emergency’. The drugs, the two men and recurring theme of blindness. But Carver keeps things taut and Cathedral is much more skilfully woven. The whole story plays out over one evening, in one house, with just three characters. 
This story is a reminder to me that I need to read more of Carver. You can find it online here.

9. “Dance in America” by Lorrie Moore
A disillusioned and tired dancer is visiting with an old friend Cal. Cal’s son Eugene is very ill and the family is straining to deal with the situation. Eugene himself is a thoughtful and intelligent kid. And he likes to dance.
This is one of those stories where nothing much happens, certainly nothing is resolved. Yet it is very satisfying. You can hear a podcast of it narrated by Louise Erdrich.

10. Brownies” by ZZ Packer
This was the only story on the list that I didn’t read since I could neither find it online nor in my local library. Anybody read this story? Thoughts?

Phew! That was exhausting but fun. I still think top ten lists of stories are a bit ridiculous but I really enjoyed reading some stories that were new to me and revisiting some that I’d read and loved before.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway


Ever since I watched Midnight in Paris (which I loved) I’ve been meaning to read A Movable Feast. The book is a memoir of Ernest Hemmingway’s years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920’s. Although it is Hemingway’s story, it is also about so many other writers and artists who were called ‘the lost generation’.  Most importantly it is about Paris.

This isn’t written like a traditional autobiography, in that there is no chronological progression of the story. In fact there is no ‘one’ story but a series of sketches on different people and different seasons. Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, T .S .Eliot, James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald, all feature in this tale. As does Hemingway’s first wife Hadley whom he loves more than life itself (until he leaves her for another woman).   
             
Generally, I find Hemingway’s style of writing too bone dry for my taste. His declarative statements and his way of using a dozen ‘ands’ in each sentence gets a bit tiring after awhile (“ you lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is dangerous...”). But in A Movable Feast, this works. When writing of a beloved city, one is always in danger of sounding like a tourist brochure. Hemingway’s writing keeps things crisp and fresh.

There are times when this book reads like a gossip magazine, featuring literary icons instead of the latest it-girls. Hemingway is merciless with those he does not like and not any gentler with those he does like. Gertrude Stein is pictured as vain, Wyndham Lewis had the ‘face of an unsuccessful rapist’, Ernest Walsh was a conman and Zelda Fitzgerald a shrew. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t come off too well either but to be fair; Hemingway is unstintingly appreciative of Fitzgerald’s writing. “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.” Hemingway obviously saw himself as an alpha male, the undisputed hero of the book with not a single blemish on him. The critical eye and the poison pen that he lavishes on everyone else are never once directed at himself.  Even in the matter of the affair which broke his first marriage, Hemingway lays the blame entirely at the door of the supposedly manipulative ‘other woman’ who plotted to trap innocent ol’ Hem.

However, one can almost forgive him his vanity when he writes of Paris. That is when the text really sings. There is no artifice or pettiness. Hemingway shows you the Paris he loved. The bookshops, the cafes and their waiters, the fishermen and the goat herds. (http://hemingwaysparis.blogspot.com/ has some great photos of the places and people Hemingway writes about.) There are also some really amusing anecdotes like the one about Ford Maddox Ford ‘cutting’ a man and the one where Scott Fitzgerald is convinced he is about to die of lung congestion.  Stories like these, besides being immensely enjoyable also give you a sense of that time and its people

 A Movable Feast is a prejudiced, yet enjoyable ode to Paris and the writers and artists that made up Hemingway’s immediate circle.  The Lost Generation and their fascinating lives make for great reading although they don't seem any more ‘lost’ than our own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Heavenly Tales by Mark Twain.


“Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.” —Twain’s last written statement

It is Transcendentalist Month in blogdom, hosted by A Room of One’s Own and so I decided to read my favourite humorist and transcendentalist, Mark Twain. I call him a transcendentalist with some hesitation because Twain never proclaimed himself as such. Also, he was notoriously inconsistent about many of his social, political and religious beliefs so pinning any kind of tag on him is dicey. However, I do believe that some of his works embody the transcendentalist philosophy very clearly. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know. Perhaps those with better knowledge of the movement can analyse this better.

Transcendental or not, Twain was undoubtedly witty and original. This week I read two of his short stories that deal with similar themes of the afterlife, sin and justice. But both stories are as different as can be. You can read both stories here.

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven
“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious”. When a story begins with these words, you know it’s going to be a crazy ride. Captain Stormfield, about whose life nothing is known, is whizzing through space, racing comets and generally enjoying his trip to heaven. But heaven, when he finally finds the right one, is nothing like he imagined it would be. Luckily he runs into an old acquaintance from his earthbound days, who tells him all about this strange new land. Twain paints us a heaven that is split into kingdoms and communities. Moses and Buddha are major celebrities and so are some of the lesser known mortals. Wings and halo’s are mere ornamentation and no soul is denied anything, within reason.  

This story is classic Mark Twain. Humorous, compassionate and imaginative. Twain was born on the day Haley’s comet visited our stratosphere and he died, as he had predicted, when it came around again. Consequently, he was always somewhat obsessed with comets and it shows in the initial passages of this story too. The character of Captain Stromfield is a mere sounding board and Twain uses his cluelessness to thresh out his idea of heaven. This heaven is built on the same principles that Twain valued and sought in this world too. Equality, opportunity and compassion. It’s a funny perspective on the afterlife but not without genuine insight. 

Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
Margaret Leester, a widow, lives with her two maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester, and her sixteen year old daughter Helen. The four of them live in absolute harmony. Hannah and Hester are lovable and kind but their moral standards are ‘uncompromisingly strict’. Margaret and Helen do not mind this until one day Helen commits the worst sin imaginable. She tells a lie. She confesses it to her aunts later and although we are never told what the lie was, it is implied that it was trivial and harmless. The aunts however, insist that she confess to her sick mother as well thereby unknowingly exposing her to the illness. Suddenly, all the lines between good and evil are blurred and the aunts find their version of morality put to the test.

This is a very sombre and tragic tale. Hardly what you would expect from Twain.  The story explores the concept of sin and what it really means. Are standards of moral behaviour more important than inherent goodness? Does the end justify the means? Twain deliberately leaves you to decide the ending.

As I mentioned before, the two stories deal with similar concepts but the styles and even the language is so different that it feels like they’ve been written by different authors.  I’d definitely recommend reading them both, if only to see which Twain you like better.


Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Play Day: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett



Waiting for Godot was the first “grown up” play I ever saw. I wasn’t entirely grown up myself at just 14. It was a very simply mounted production that stuck to Beckett’s script pretty faithfully. The two principal actors were beyond talented and brought a real effervescence to the play. I enjoyed the performance immensely. Whatever symbolism and existential undertones the play had, I neither understood nor cared about. I just thought it a lot of fun. It was only years later, in literature class, that I realised how intimidating this play can be. Critics and scholars and professors seem to delight in making the play as inaccessible as possible. But at the heart of it, it’s really a very simple play. A play where nothing happens. Twice. A brainteaser, yes, but then what work of art isn't?

The play is pretty much summarized in the title itself. It is about two guys waiting. For someone name Godot. We never find out who Godot is or why these guys should wait for him. The implication is that they don’t know either. We know very little about the two men except that they are called Vladimir and Estragon. There are faint allusions to them having seen better times but it has hardly any bearing on anything. To pass the time while they are waiting, the two engage in ridiculous banter, horse around with their boots and hats, and at more than one point they even consider hanging themselves. “Nothing to be done” is a recurring motif here.

Then there are Pozzo and Lucky. Two of the most inscrutable characters you ever did see. But then “inscrutable” is a word that keeps cropping up when you’re reading anything by or about Beckett. There is also the character of the ‘boy’ who brings the two tramps messages from Godot. Actually, he brings the same message, twice. Godot himself is the central character. But we know nothing about him. Nobody does. It isn’t even known if he exists.  It is often suggested that Godot is meant to be a metaphor for God, an unknown entity who we spend our whole lives waiting for.

The trouble with Waiting for Godot, and also its main strength is that it is so completely open to interpretation. This can be challenging for the average reader, like me. Especially when the interpretations get increasingly obscure and confusing. But Beckett didn’t intend it to be a puzzle. There is no right answer. You can make what you want of it and if it makes sense to you, you’ll be right. When I first saw the play, the interaction between Vladimir and Estragon seemed very like a Laurel and Hardy sketch. That is how the actors chose to play it. I also loved Lucky, his crazy dance and nonsensical ramblings. Waiting for Godot (A tragicomedy in two acts) is a prime example of the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement.  It is meant to be absurd and ridiculous. Rather, it is meant to mirror the absurdity and ridiculousness of the human existence. Why bother to ‘figure it out’?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Stories from the Dubliners


“When I first met Joyce, I didn't intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. But I do remember speaking about Joyce's heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That's what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn't go down that same road.”

That’s Samuel Beckett, the great playwright and novelist, talking about James Joyce. Since I adore Beckett (Coming soon: a post on Waiting for Godot) I’ve always wanted to read Joyce as I imagined both writers to have a similar voice (not so). I started, very ambitiously, with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but life intervened and I had to abandon it midway. I’ve had Ulysses on my TBR list for as long as I've had a TBR list. Sadly, I just never seem to get around to it. Part of the reason is that Joyce really doesn’t make it easy for the reader. So, I decided to take the safe route and test the waters with his short story collection Dubliners. These are the only short stories he wrote and a couple of them seem a bit too long to even qualify as short stories. I’m not going into word counts and such, if Joyce calls them short stories, I’ll take his word for it. But for this post, I'm going with two of his shorter and simpler stories.

A Little Cloud

Little Chandler (so called due to his ‘littleness’ of stature and manner) is due to meet his old friend Gallaher at a bar after work and this imminent meeting preoccupies him through the workday. Gallaher is the wild child who has made it big. Little Chandler’s life seems horribly bleak and mundane in ‘dirty Dublin’ compared to Gallaher’s glitzy life in the great cities of the world. Chandler tells himself that it isn’t too late for him. He could still become a celebrated poet if he put his mind to it.

I really liked this story. Joyce really captures the ‘littleness’ that Little Chandler feels and the increasing desperation with which he hangs onto his flimsy dream. The last scene is particularly sad, not because anything bad happens, but because Chandler’s little bubble bursts over a triviality, underlining the ordinariness of his life.

Clay

Maria works at the Dublin by Lamplight laundry. She has an evening off for Halloween and is excited about spending it with Joe whom she had nursed as a boy. On the way to Joe’s house she picks up some treats for Joe’s family, only to reach there and realise that a plum cake she had bought was either stolen or lost on the train ride.

Maria is another one of Joyce’s ‘little’ people. Ordinary, pitiable yet very likable. Maria, unlike Little Chandler, doesn’t dream of being anything more than what she already is. She has ungrudgingly accepted her lot in life and has neither complaints nor hopes. Yet, when she sings a song at the very end, she unwittingly pours all her longing into it. Maria is one of those characters who by their very simplicity affect you more than the shinier heroes.

Dubliners could actually be the title of any of Joyce’s books since they are all essentially about people living in Dublin. Joyce himself said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” If you read these short stories, you will see what he means about the universal contained in the particular. These characters are very conscious of themselves as Dubliners but they could actually inhabit any city and any time. You can read both stories here.

Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/.

image http://danliterature.wordpress.com/james-joyce-ulysses/

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Kate Chopin and Shirley Jackson



A couple of weeks ago, Sophia of Sophia’s Book Blog read and reviewed a lovely short story called Lilacs by Kate Chopin. I really liked the story so I explored a few more of Chopin’s works and A Pair of Silk Stockings was another one of her stories that I liked. I also stumbled upon a story by Shirley Jackson named The Lottery. Apparently, it is her best-known work and a popular American short story. Sadly, I had never heard of the author or the story before but I’m definitely going to be reading more of her now.  Okay, so onto the stories.

A Pair of Silk Stockings
Mrs Sommers is a sensible woman.  So, when she finds herself unexpectedly richer by fifteen dollars, she makes plans to use the money sensibly. All of her children could have fresh new clothes and hats and stockings. However, Mrs Sommers’ sensible plans are derailed by a pair of silk stockings. 
This is not a twist in the end tale. There are no surprises here. But I really liked the way Chopin treats her protagonist. Mrs Sommers is instantly recognizable. We all know women like her to whom, ordinarily, self-indulgence is a bad word. The whole story revolves around just one character and a few hours in her life. Nothing remotely thrilling but a gentle and poignant read. You can find it here.


The Lottery
 Its lottery day in a small village in America. There is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. The preparations have been meticulously done and the whole village has gathered to witness the important event. This particular lottery has been around for a very long time. It is a part of the local tradition, and yet, it is anything but traditional.
It is difficult to write much about the story without giving it all away. You really have to go into it knowing nothing. Apparently, when this story was first published in 1948, it really rattled a lot of people who believed that it was an attack on the value system of small town America. I cannot guess whether Jackson intended it as an attack but there is no denying the whiplash effect of the story. You can find it online here.

Anyone read any other works by Jackson? Any recommendations? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Scoop and Behind the Screen by Agatha Christie and other Distinguished Members of the London Detection Club.



Before I get to the stories, I must tell you about the London Detection Club. Isn’t it an absolutely delectable idea? G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Baroness Emma Orczy and of course Agatha Christie were only some of the founding members of this club. The members of this club met regularly over dinner and helped each other with their plots and such. It was understood that the club was to consist only of writers who wrote detective fiction and not espionage, adventure or horror stories. This was emphasised with an oath that all members had to take, “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect?”  The club also indulged in a few whimsical rituals that are cited in the preface of this book.

Coming to the book itself, it consists of two mysteries, not quite small enough to be called short stories.  These stories were initially broadcast, a chapter a week, by their authors on the BBC National Programme and then published in serial form in The Listener.  This book was published to raise funds so that club premises could be acquired. Apparently, other such collaborative books were also published, namely The Floating Admiral, Ask a Policeman and Verdict of Thirteen. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. Meanwhile, on to the stories.

The Scoop
An up-and-coming reporter is sent to investigate and report on the sensational murder of a young woman in a lonely bungalow. The reporter calls back to office claiming to have traced the murder weapon. This would make a great story for the Morning Star. Unfortunately the reporter never gets the chance to write the story. He is found murdered in a telephone booth. 

According to the afterword The Scoop had been outlined and discussed in broad terms by all the writers involved, with each writer adding their own nuances but working within the blueprint. Agatha Christie writes two of the early and quite crucial chapters. I found this story to be more representative of Christie’s usual style and method, which makes me feel that perhaps she helmed this. Then again, I’m probably not the best judge because Christie and Sayers are the only two authors of this story whom I’ve read before. Each author displays their own distinctive style in their chapters. This could so easily have turned into a disconnected hodgepodge, but happily, it doesn’t. The different voices tie in together quite seamlessly and no jarring note is struck. I really enjoyed this mystery. Not to belittle the other excellent contributors to this story but I will always think of it as an Agatha Christie mystery.

Behind the Screen
This story almost reads like a lateral puzzle. At least it starts off that way. A family sits in their parlour after dinner doing the things they normally do at this hour. They are joined by the man who is to marry the daughter of the house. It is all very mundane and normal except for the strange sense of unease in the room. The apparent calm is shattered when a body is found crumpled behind a screen in the parlour. Yet, it is hardly possible for anyone to have committed this crime without the others noticing.

Unlike The Scoop, in Behind the Screen, the first three authors carried the story along according to their fancies; while the last three used their wits, in consultation, to unravel the clues presented to them by the first three. This sounds like an exciting prospect, unfortunately, it doesn’t play out too well. The first three, including Christie, chalk out a brilliant premise and weave a pretty tight and interesting mystery, but the other three just don’t seem to know what to make of it or where to take it. The final chapter is particularly disappointing, a hastily put together ‘solution’ that rather forcibly makes the facts fit around the answer. It also breaks one of the cardinal rules of good detective fiction,that the reader must be made aware of all the relevant facts early on. This had all the makings of a really memorable detective story, but sadly, it falls very short.

Before I wrap this up, I must share with you the blessing that is pronounced after a member takes oath at the London Detection Club.
             You are duly elected a member of the Detection Club,
And if you fail to remember you promises and break even one of our unwritten rules,
may other writers anticipate your plots
may total strangers sue you for libel
may your pages swarm with misprints
and your sales continually diminish.
But should you, as no doubt you will, recall these promises and observe these rules,
may reviewers rave over you
and literary editors lunch you.
May book clubs bargain for you
And women’s magazines carve you up.
May films be made from you (and keep your plots)
And American universities embalm you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Roald Dahl’s “Grown-up” Stories.


Roald Dahl figured quite prominently in my childhood reading line-up. Starting with Mathilda, I’ve read and loved most of his children’s books. Then I forgot all about him until a few years ago when someone gifted me a collection of his short stories for grown-ups. It was quite a revelation to me that the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox had written these sinister tales. This week I read two of his short stories. Both these stories are by no means the best of Dahl, and that is saying something because these are really good. You could randomly pick up any of his short stories and be guaranteed a good read. Some of my favorite Dahl stories are, The Great Automatic Grammatizator , Skin and The Way Up to Heaven. I opted to review stories that are available online so you can read them, if you haven’t already.

Man from the South

The story begins with the narrator lounging by a pool in a hotel in Jamaica where he’s joined by an odd man of unknown nationality. Soon an American sailor and an English girl also take up seats beside them. The American offers Carlos, the stranger, a light from his cigarette lighter and brags about the lighter never failing to light up, even when it is windy. Carlos then suggests that they bet on it. A bizarre yet tempting bet. If the American manages to light his lighter ten consecutive times, Carlos will give him his brand new Cadillac, but should he lose, he must give up his little finger.

This story is titled The Smoker in some collections. It is classic Roald Dahl. Politically incorrect, bizarre and dark with an unexpected ending. Dahl doesn’t bother with setting or back story or in-depth characterizations.  You know as much as you need to know and no more. In a strange way, this is much more menacing. The character of Carlos, for instance, you can’t figure him out. He sometimes seems eccentric, sometimes sinister and sometimes just plain pathetic. This story, with its intriguing premise and clean structure, lends itself, very easily to adaptations and spin offs.  I’ve seen/read three different versions of it but the original still has the most impact.

Lamb to the Slaughter

Mary Maloney is pregnant and happily married to Patrick, a police detective. At least, she thinks she is happily married. Patrick, it seems, has other ideas. Here again, we are not really told what Patrick thinks but it is implied that he is about to walk out on Mary. The details are not provided because they don’t matter. Without any clear idea of what she’s about to do, Mary strikes Patrick on his head with a frozen leg of lamb.

This isn’t really a whodunit, more of a ‘is-she-going -to-get-away-with-it’. It’s a unique spin on the standard murder mystery and the sheer simplicity of the plot really works. Dahl deals with murder and its aftermath as if it were an interesting but inconsequential puzzle.

These stories are a great example of the writer’s skill. Dahl’s short stories, or what I’ve read of them, are all about the mundane turning macabre. Not for him the deserted houses and the dark alleys.  His sinister creations walk among us, living seemingly ordinary lives. Every time you read a story of his, you are expecting a shake up at the end and yet he still manages to shock you. 


Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/
Roald dahl image from http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/event/roald-dahl-dahlathon

Friday, October 7, 2011

Literary Blog Hop Oct 6-9

Literary Blog Hop

Its time for the Literary Blog Hop again. Phew! the past month just flew by. This weeks question comes from one of my favorite bloggers Mel U over at the Reading Life.

When I was in my early teens I read a book called Van Loon's Lives by Hendrick Willlem Van Loon. It was written in 1942 (Van Loon was a Newberry Winner for another work). I was maybe ten or so when I first read it and I was totally fascinated. The story line is that Von Loon and his good friend found a magic way to invite three famous literary figures from different eras for a Sunday Dinner. The book gives mini bios of the guests, explains the food the would have wanted and shows their dinner conversations. If you could invite any three literary figures from different eras to a Sunday Dinner who would they be? Magic takes care of the language issues.

Wow! What a thought?!! I think i'd go with three of my favorite female literary icons. Not to be sexist or anything but I do think a girls night out with these fabulous femme's would be something to remember.

1. Agatha Christie:
No one can spin a whodunit quite like the grand dame of mystery. To create, not one but several memorable detectives is something amazing.

2. Virginia Woolf:
I've mentioned this before but there's something about Woolf that has always fascinated me. Perhaps because she's impossible to pigeon-hole.

3. Simone de Beauvoir
She practically invented feminism. And not the kind that gets all the bad press. Her ideologies may seem militant but they are rooted in compassion.

I wish I could have such a dinner party. I'd totally invite you all :)


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Dark and Spooky Tales by Ambrose Bierce



Ambrose Bierce was nicknamed "Bitter Bierce", and after reading his stories, it is easy to see why.  Although the stories I read were undoubtedly lacking sunshine, they were very well written.  In fact, Bierce’s life or rather his death is as spooky as any of his stories. He was travelling in Mexico whence he disappeared without a trace and was never heard from again. Sounds like something he would write. This week I read two of his short stories, among them An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is his best known work.

Beyond the Wall

The narrator, who is never named, renews contact with an old school chum, an aristocrat named Mohun Dampier. He goes to meet Dampier at the latter’s home and is dismayed to find his once-handsome and robust friend now looking absolutely ghostly. There is an atmosphere of doom and decay around the house and it is clear that Dampier himself is wasting away. Barely have the friends exchanged a few not-so-pleasantries when there is a gentle tapping sound which seems to be coming from the adjoining room. Except, there is no adjoining room. There is nothing beyond the wall but the dark night.

Now, this is paint by numbers spooky story. There is nothing here that you haven’t read before and you almost always know what the next scene is going to be. The atmosphere that Bierce strives to create is also pretty clichéd with a raging storm and a gloomy house. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad story; just that it is a standard issue horror story, perfect for when you are in the mood for such a thing.  Perhaps it just takes a lot more to shock and scare us today than it did with readers in Bierce’s time.

Give it a go. You can find it Here.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The story, set in the American Civil War, begins with a man standing on a railroad bridge, bound hand and foot, with a noose around his neck. Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy plantation owner and confederate loyalist is about to be hanged for trying to destroy an important bit of the railroad. All the preparations for the execution are complete and now it only remains for the captain to give the signal and the deed will be done. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and also of escape. Then, in a strange turn of events, he does escape. What comes next is the big daddy of all twist in the tale endings.

As I mentioned before, this story was always considered Bierce’s best. I haven’t read enough of his stories to make a comparative judgement but this would be pretty hard to top. Almost the entire story takes place on a plank on the bridge with a noose around the protagonist’s neck. How’s that for a setting?  We drift in and out of Farquhar’s mind until reality and imagination blend seamlessly into each other. Really, this is the work of a master craftsman.
It’s an amazing story but also a very disturbing one. Bierce treats the subject of death and execution with a casualness and thoroughness that makes the whole experience even more macabre for the reader. This is no bedtime story. More like a brilliantly written nightmare.

You can read it Here.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

I like to participate in the Book Blogger Hop hosted by Crazy-for-Books whenever I have a Friday that isn't maddeningly busy. The Blog Hop is a great way to meet fellow book bloggers and follow new blogs that you may find interesting.

This weeks question is: “In honor of Banned Books Week, what is your favorite “banned or frequently challenged book”?”

Two of the books on the banned books list that I love are Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I cannot even begin to understand what anyone could have found objectionable about these books but then I cannot banning books anyway. 

Have a great week people and happy blog hopping.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell


This week I read just one short story, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell. Actually I had no idea that Orwell wrote short stories too. I sort of stumbled onto this one.  The story is narrated by an unnamed, British, police officer in Burma when it was under British rule. The officer talks of the contempt the Burmese have for the Europeans who presume to rule them. As a paid servant of the oppressive regime, he is hated and mocked by the natives, although he would personally never harm anyone. While he is irritated and hurt by the hatred of the natives, the actions of the British are downright repulsive to him. He relates the agonies and tortures that the locals are put through by the ostensibly civilized Imperial power. He would like nothing better than to chuck up his job and head back home but needs must and so he plods on, dissatisfied and bitter.

Then one day, there are reports of an elephant ravaging a bazaar and the officer is asked to go do something about it. He hasn’t the vaguest idea what he can do about it, but sets forth anyway, with his pony and a rifle. After some hunting about and general confusion, it is discovered that the elephant trampled to death a coolie. The townspeople want the elephant to pay (besides, they like the idea of all that elephant meat). The officer is horrified at the very idea of shooting an elephant in cold blood. Especially since the elephant in question seems to have calmed down. But he realizes that the mob behind him will not let him back out now. What follows is a momentous struggle, both within and without.

This short story is supposedly an autobiographical account of the time Orwell served as a police officer in Burma. There is definitely an insider’s perspective here. Orwell believes that imperialism corrodes and disfigures not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. This story illustrates that belief beautifully.  This could so easily have turned into an ‘us against them’ tirade, but Orwell never dehumanizes anyone. As a result, you feel for everyone, the natives who are being subjugated in their own land, the isolated and voiceless European officers and most of all the poor elephant who has nothing to do with imperialism but falls prey to it all the same. The last bit of the story is tragic and terribly disturbing but Orwell makes his point here, effectively and memorably.



Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot


My interest in the horror genre, gothic or otherwise, is slim. I’ve read a few of the classics like Frankenstein and some well known short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Roald Dahl but that’s it. The Lifted Veil intrigued me because it isn’t what one would expect from George Eliot. Firstly, I’ve never known her (In case you didn’t know, Eliot is a woman. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans) to dabble in the paranormal before and secondly, this is a novella, from a writer who is known for HUGE books with multiple storylines and a gazillion characters.

The story begins with Latimer, the narrator, predicting his own death in chilling detail. He knows when and how he will die and he knows exactly how it’s going to feel. From here on, we travel back in time with Latimer to when he was a little boy, adored by his mother and ignored by his father and step brother. Physically and mentally weak, Latimer is forced into studies he does not enjoy and finally sent to Geneva. While there, he falls gravely ill. He survives the illness, only to realise that it has changed something within him. He can now look into the future and into people’s souls. To Latimer, this ability is a curse that makes him privy to the tortured souls of everyone around him and alienates him even more from his near ones.  The turning point comes when he sees and falls in love with Bertha, his brother’s prospective wife. The cunning and coquettish Bertha manages to keep her soul hidden from Latimer. He has a peek into their future and what he sees there horrifies him. But seeing the future doesn’t mean he can change it.

The story is pretty fast paced and well executed. It reminds me of Frankenstein in a way, mostly because both stories are narrated, in first person, by their tormented protagonists.  Eliot manages to create an eerie atmosphere and a sense of impending doom from the very first page onwards. However, it is very hard to sympathise with any of the characters, not even the wretched protagonist. His constant lamentations about his weakness start to get a bit tiresome after a while. But this is just me nitpicking really. Overall, the story makes the impact that it is aiming for. While it is more ‘Supernatural’ than ‘Horror’, it does manage to give you goosebumps.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Guy De Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and Henry James tell the same story, differently.


Its three for the price of one this week. Three formidable writers take on a single theme and give it entirely different shades.  It all started with Guy De Maupassant who was a prolific writer with a special talent for short stories. One of his most famous stories is The Necklace. Somerset Maugham and Henry James both put their own spin on this fable and came out with two stories that are very distinct in style and treatment. The characters, setting and motives are all changed but the necklace stays .

The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant
This is the story of Madame Mathilde Loisel who aspires to be one among the rich and fashionable. She is, however, married to a lowly but loving clerk. One day, she and her husband finally manage to get themselves invited to a very swish party. Unwilling to go unadorned, she borrows a necklace from her wealthy friend. As ill luck would have it, the necklace is lost by the end of the party and Mathilde and her husband’s life is forever changed. For more on this story I’m going to lead you to Mel U’s excellent review of it HERE.  You can read the story online HERE.


A String of Beads by Somerset Maugham
Miss Robinson is a well mannered and well liked governess in a wealthy household. One night, she is invited to dine with the family and a few of their distinguished guests. One of these guests is Miss Lyngate who is particularly proud of the pearls she is wearing. Shockingly Count Borselli, an expert on jewellery, seems more impressed with Miss Robinson’s string of beads than with Miss Lyngate’s precious pearls. He insists the beads are the real thing but how could a governess afford anything so expensive? Surely it is a mistake. Well it is a mistake, and a very fortunate one for Miss Robinson.
I couldn't find it online but there is an eBook you could download.

Paste by Henry James
Charlotte is given a tin of cheap costume jewellery that belonged to her late aunt, by her cousin Arthur.  But a string of pearls among them seems too beautiful to be just paste. However Arthur insists that they are worthless. So Charlotte seeks the advice of Mrs Guy, a woman who was sure to know about such things. Mrs Guy agrees with Charlotte’s assessment of the pearls and advises her to hang onto them. Honest Charlotte cannot repay Arthur’s generosity with deceit.  But she soon learns that not everyone has similar scruples.
You can find Paste HERE.

As I stated before, almost everything except the necklace itself is different in each of these versions. The most striking difference is in the three female protagonists. Mathilde is a pretentious and petulant woman making it hard for us to sympathise with her. Miss Robinson is generally liked but her story is less about her character and more about a stroke of luck. Lastly, Charlotte is a woman of real moral integrity and goodness but Henry James does not turn this into a moral tale. Ultimately, the real common thread running through these stories is the underlying idea of inanimate jewels profoundly affecting human lives.