Archive for short stories

Points Of View

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by acousticchick

‘Points of View’ isn’t just a plain old short story anthology. Oh, no. Not only do you get to read a wide variety of stories (and by “wide variety” I mean that half of them sucked), but you also get to add a few notches to your intellectual bedpost. Originally a textbook, ‘Points of View’ features eleven categories, each preceded by a quick explanation of the perspective in which the following stories were written.

Instead of giving a run-down of each of the stories in ‘Points of View’ (there are over forty), I’m going to pick three to be Grand Master Champion Short Stories. To maintain the spirit of this blog, only stories written by now-dead authors get trophies, though half the stories I actually enjoyed were penned by people who are still alive. They get honorable mentions before the award ceremony. So let’s give a big round of applause for…

  • ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ by Lorrie Moore, for an accurate portrayal of the role doubt plays in romantic relationships,
  • ‘My Sister’s Marriage’ by Cynthia Marhsall Rich, even though I’m not sure if she’s still alive or not (a thousand points to whomever finds out), and
  • ‘The Circuit’ by Francisco Jimené z, for making me sad.

The first and second runners-up are ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor. I really liked both stories for different reasons. The first is creepy and suspenseful (something that’s usually easier to pull off in movies than in writing), and the second handles the mix of religion and childhood with humor.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

In third place is ‘The Stone Boy’ by Gina Berriault. Berriault weaves several conflicting emotions together by placing her main character in a situation that would be damning if he were an adult.

Second place goes to ‘Doby’s Gone’ by Ann Petry. This story is also told from a child’s perspective, and I’m always impressed when authors get this point of view right. Ann Petry strikes the right balance of simplicity and depth, using an imaginary friend to symbolize the move from innocence to experience.

And the winner of the gold medal and a brand new car is ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. This story takes first place purely because I can’t say a word about it without ruining it, and you’ll only know that’s not a cop-out if you read it.

21 Great Stories

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 17, 2011 by acousticchick

I love short stories: Why use three hundred pages to say what only needs twenty? And this is a good collection of them all of the stories were well-written and there was a healthy variety of genre and subject matter. I enjoyed most of them, and the worst I can say about the few I didn’t care for is that they didn’t hold my attention. And now (since I’m tired of trying to think of a segue), here are twenty-one great stories, summarized in twenty-one words or fewer.

‘War’ by Luigi Pirandello
This story is about war, but it’s more about the dichotomy between what a person says and what he feels.

‘Eve In Darkness’ by Kaatje Hurlbut
Told from a child’s perspective, this one plays with the definition of sin.

‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury
He’s not dead yet, but I couldn’t very well ignore him. Ray Bradbury is the shit.

‘Tobermory’ by “Saki”
A talking housecat calls rich dinner guests out on their character flaws. The humans’ response is surprisingly sinister.

‘The Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany
A story about murder that’s half Sherlock Holmes and half Alfred Hitchcock: short, sweet, and grisly.

‘Footfalls’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele
I’m usually pretty good at figuring out how a story will end; this one completely surprised me.

‘Hook’ by Walter Van Tilburg Clarke
This one’s about a hawk. It’s good and all, but still…that’s it.

‘Wine on the Desert’ by Max Brand
Some jerk murders someone and then dies. The foreshadowing is a little too obvious.

‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ by Frank Stockton
I’d forgotton that I’d already read this story. I love it, and I love the question it asks.

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce
The twist ending is lackluster. The story is about a guy who gets hanged. It doesn’t really stand out.

‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe
In eighth grade, this story was ruined for me by an audiobook narrator with a lumbering voice.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
Classic, predictable Poe there’s darkness, death, and neuroticism. At least it’s well-written neuroticism.

‘So Much Unfairness of Things’ by C. D. B. Bryan
A boy gets expelled from school for cheating. Really good character writing.

‘The Necklace’ by Guy de Maupassant
A story about the consequences of being a greedy, vain bitch.

‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes. Enough said.

‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London
Dude travels alone, on foot, in negative-seventy-five degree weather. Dude freezes to death. Surprise.

‘Leiningen Versus the Ants’ by Carl Stephenson
An M. Night Shyamalan movie where the twist is wait for it the bad guys are ANTS.

‘Eveline’ by James Joyce
Girl has hard life, girl gets chance to escape, girl chickens out. Thinking about why she chickened out is fun, though.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber
To Walter Mitty, reality is whatever he imagines, and what everyone else calls real is a distraction. Sweet.

‘What Stumped the Bluejays’ by Mark Twain
Exactly what you’d expect from Mark Twain: funny and charming.

‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck
A long-winded morality tale. “Riches corrupt” is an old story. But “man = half god, half insane” was a neat idea.

The Best Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on March 4, 2011 by acousticchick

Well, the unthinkable has happened. I have read a book of Dostoevsky’s writing, and I have absolutely nothing to whine about. Dostoevsky positively shines in short form. Each of the seven short stories in the collection I read featured both a plot and a perfectly acceptable amount of rambling so acceptable, in fact, that I can’t even really call it rambling.

The collection starts out with “White Nights,” which the author calls “a sentimental love story.” It was nice of Dostoevsky to warn me about what I was getting into, but I didn’t find it sentimental at all. Given that it’s a Russian tale, there was a nicely subtle bitterness to it that kept me from wanting to puke. Basically, a girl likes two dudes. The expected drama ensues, she picks one, and the other is all, “Well, at least I had her for a moment,” except it’s Dostoevsky, so he says, “Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?” As far as happy endings go, that’s one of the more sorrowful I’ve ever read.

“The Honest Thief” and “The Peasant Marey” are character sketches. In both stories, the plot is straightforward and static and the characters are complex and thoughtful. This sort of writing makes me squirm it’s so easy to identify with the scummy motives or intense feelings the characters are experiencing.

“The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” is a pleasantly creepy story of pedophilia and greed. Over the course of nine pages, a sticky-fingered old man hits on a little girl born to a rich family, charms her mother, and marries the child, who is just old enough to realize that she’s going to live the rest of her life in despair.

“Notes From the Underground” was the first story that I was apprehensive about. Given that it’s the longest in this collection, I was expecting Dostoevsky to relapse into tangents, but instead he takes you through the ins and outs of his main character’s brain as he analyzes himself and philosophizes about the world. And as an added bonus, things actually happen. The story hops back and forth from introspection to action frequently enough to keep even my attention span engaged.

“A Gentle Creature” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” I read during the delirium of illness, so while I got the general idea of the stories, I didn’t pick up on any of the subtleties. I’m going to go ahead and assume they were as awesome as the others.

So kudos to Dostoevsky. In short form, the philosophy and psychology of his writing is clear and sharp. I’m not recanting what I’ve said about him before, but I have a new appreciation for his writing after having read these stories.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on January 4, 2011 by acousticchick

Leo Tolstoy is one of my favorite authors because he writes frankly about what it means to be human. We fall in love, we die, we kill, and we make sacrifices, and Tolstoy doesn’t shy away from the amalgam of emotions involved in each of these things. Instead, he holds up a mirror, showing the reader his or her own humanity with nonjudgmental accuracy. And he does it with less rambling than Dostoevsky.

The first short story, “Family Happiness,” is a chick flick, but one with a significantly different message. Marya and Sergey fall in love, get married, begin a cycle of fighting and attempting reconciliation, and pop out a few kids along the way. The gooey romantic bits of their relationship inevitably dissolve, but instead of having his lovebirds split up at the end of the story, Tolstoy throws out a refreshing ending with a wise bit of advice in it: Friendship is what lasts, not romance.

After this very nice, warm-fuzzies story, comes “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” which is much gloomier. This story has the best example of Tolstoy’s candid expression of human nature: When Ivan Ilych’s coworkers one of whom knew him since childhood find out that he has died, each of them think first of the possibility of their own promotions now that his position is open. “It is he who is dead and not I,” they all think, as any of us would. Tolstoy felt no need to romanticize the self-centeredness of humanity.

The third story in the collection is the photographic negative of the first. A diatribe against love, marriage, and procreation, “The Kreutzer Sonata” tells the story of Pozdnyshev, who ends up killing his wife because he suspects her of unfaithfulness. The author never makes it clear whether Pozdnyshev’s lady actually cheated on him or not; Pozdnyshev’s actions were the product of a truth he created for himself.

“Master and Man” has the weakest plot of the four. A man and his servant ride around in the snow for dozens of pages until their horse dies. The men curl up together to keep warm, the master dies, and the servant is found barely alive at dawn. The point of the story could have been the act of sacrifice or it could have just been that Russia is really fucking cold. I’m not sure. Even Tolstoy was only human, though.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on July 21, 2010 by acousticchick

In Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, the id is called onto the carpet. As her readers are ineluctably drawn into the often twisted mindsets of her characters, she exposes selfishness and the consequences that come from acting on it. Each story features a cast that varies widely in age, ethnicity, gender, and social class, and the reader’s glimpse into their lives is all the deeper for its brevity.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “The Comforts of Home” each have a clear lesson: Don’t be a bigot. O’Connor could have gotten on a soap box, but instead she uses her story-telling to get the point across. Each story features an antagonist who is convinced of his or her own righteousness, and each has to face the harsh outcome of their conceit. Far from doling out eye-for-an-eye judgment, though, the author seems to question the sentences which are dramatic in both stories even as she imparts them.

O’Connor’s talent for capturing the honesty and the resolve of a child’s mind shines in “The River.” The reader experiences the story through the eyes of Harry, the young son of perpetually-drunk parents. One day he is taken to a religious function by his baby-sitter and baptized in a river. “Now you can go to the kingdom of Christ,” the preacher tells him, and Harry takes this rather well, since he thinks the preacher means he doesn’t have to go back home. The next morning, while his folks recover from last night’s party, Harry returns to the river and drowns in an attempt to find the kingdom of Christ at the bottom.

When O’Connor writes from adult points of view, the stories get even more disconcerting. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” would be just another urban legend (family of five murdered by highway robbers!) if not for the nature versus nurture debate between the leader of the highway gang and the grandmother, which takes place while the old woman’s family is dying around her. “Good Country People” centers around Joy, a queen among cynics, who tries to seduce a Bible salesman to show him the futility of morality. In a perverse plot twist, however, the seemingly innocent young man convinces her to remove her wooden leg and then absconds with it, frankly informing her that he’s a con man and not the Bible-toting simpleton she thought he was.

Dark and always profound, each of Flannery O’Connor’s stories calls for a questioning of assumptions. She delves into the flawed motives and actions of her characters, but never spoon-feeds conclusions or sermonizes. As O’Connor unfolds her characters’ inner lives, her readers are forced to examine themselves, but also to think outside themselves.