Back on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I used to run regular reviews of short stories. I still do here are James Reads Books though not quite as often. Since starting over here on WordPress I’ve been migrating my old reviews to this new site. Below is a smorgasbord of short story reviews from back in 2008.
Grace Paley: It turns out Grace Paley’s stories are about sex. At least the three I’ve read so far are. To be honest, I’m a little shocked by this. I’ve long heard her praised as one of the best short story writers out there, but never read her until recently. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I found in her short story “A Woman, Young and Old.”
Josephine, the fourteen-year-old narrator, lives with her older sister Lizzy, her mother and her grandmother. The sons of the family have all left home. “Sons are like that, first grouchy, then gone,” as Josephine’s grandmother says.
One night Lizzy brings home a good looking corporal who quickly becomes the center of everyone’s attention, especially young Josephine’s. She decides that she is in love with Browny, as he’s called, and that the two of them should be married. After a long evening, Browny ends up staying the night which gives Josephine the opportunity to sneak into bed with him and convince him that they should get married. The next morning, she announces this to her family. Lizzy is not all that concerned since he was just a date, grandmother is shocked to hear this from a young girl, but mother goes out that same day and comes home with a Lieutenant.
“A Woman, Young and Old” is a comic story in the same sense the Eudora Welty’s stories are comic. There are plenty of laughs along the way, but the whole thing tends to make the reader a little uncomfortable, too. Paley looks like she is having fun here, maybe having her way with the reader, but she’s definitely up to something. I’m hooked. Expect to see more of her stories reviewed here.
P.G. Wodehouse: When you find yourself in need of a few laughs, you can’t go wrong with P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. “The Metropolitan Touch“, while not one of the best, delivers plenty of smiles if not outright laughs.
Bertie Wooster, our narrator, becomes entangled once again with the love-life of his chum Bingo Little. Bingo has left the London high life for village England where he’s found the girl of his dreams again. The trouble is that she has more and more suitors every week and has expressed little interest in Bingo. So Bingo sends Bertie one of the longest telegrams ever, asking him to come down to help him, and to please bring 100 of “those little cigarettes” and “make sure you bring Jeeves.”
For a while it looks as though Jeeves’s advice will win the day and win Bingo the current love of his life. But things go horribly wrong once Bingo agrees to direct the town Christmas pageant. Bingo inserts all the latest best scenes from the London theatre season, though a few are wildly inappropriate for village theatre, offends everyone including the love of his life who leaves him for another suitor. In the end, as always, we find out that Jeeves was behind it all, and that he has made a killing betting against Bingo’s success in the village pub.
While it’s true that the Jeeves stories are basically all the same, that they do not offer any great insight into the human condition and that their satire is less than biting, they are a pleasure to read. The literary equivalent of a bon-bon, not exactly good for you, but a treat none-the-less. Even one like “The Metropolitan Touch” which is certainly not the best.
Ray Bradbury: Like the best of Ray Bradbury’s work “The Crowd” begins with an ordinary, commonplace situation in this case the crowds that always seem to appear at the scene of an accident or other tragedy. How is that these crowds always appear, even if the accident happens in a deserted area? Mr. Bradbury’s best work takes a simple question like this and turns it into a haunting story that both entertains and makes you think about the ordinary with a greater sense of wonder. Mr. Bradbury said in an interview that the idea for “The Crowd” came from an actual experience:
One night, when I was visiting a friend, I heard a car crash outside. We ran out and discovered there was this accident on the street in which five people dropped dead right in front of us. They were staggering around from the wreck, and they fell down and died. Within moments, a crowd gathered from nowhere, which was especially strange, because most of the surroundings were the graveyard. There was nowhere for the crowd to come from.
Twenty years later, that experience became the basis for “The Crowd”. Mr. Spallner survives a car crash and is haunted by the faces in the crowd of people that gathered around him before the paramedics and the ambulance arrived. On his way home from the hospital he witnesses another automobile accident and the crowd that gathers around it. He thinks he recognizes some of the people in the crowd. He begins to gather old newspaper photographs of accidents and finds that certain faces appear in the crowd over and over again. How do these people find themselves at so many different accidents and what are their intentions?
“The Crowd” is a classic ghost story and lots of fun. It’s the sort of thing one could easily tell around a campfire, though it is much more spooky than outright scary. It has been adapted for television as part of the Ray Bradbury Theatre and can be found in the collection October Country.
Carol Shields: What is it about a doll that can give it so much meaning, so much power, that it can become something that is loved? Carol Shields looks at this questions in her story “Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls.” This is not a horror story nor does it contain any elements of the supernatural, but the dolls in it still have power.
The narrator tells us about the dolls she and her sister Roberta have known throughout their lives. Robertas write about visiting a doll making village in Japan and holding the newly completed head of a geisha doll in her hand and thinking for a moment that it was alive. The narrator tells us about the dolls she and her sister were giving each year at Christmas. The mother would go into town alone, shopping all day, looking for the perfect set of dolls for that years holiday. These would be added to the growing collection, played with, named, loved, until the girls were both eleven and wanted a wrist watch. They then go onto the shelves in the closet where they remain until one night when the narrator cannot sleep. There is a killer loose in the neighborhood. One of their friends has been murdered and no one feels safe, not even the narrator who is now a tough teenager who is invited to play commando with the neighborhood boys. But on this one night she cannot sleep, until she sees Sally Lyn, one of her old dolls on the shelf in her closet. Holding the doll, the teenager is able to sleep.
There is much more than this going on in Carol Shields’s story “Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls.” You can find it in Collected Stories.
Eudora Welty: Old Mr. Marblehall didn’t really begin to live until he turned 60. He stayed in Natchez, Mississippi his whole life occupying his ancestral home and never really did much of anything but travel on business. Then one day, he married a much younger woman and soon had a son. An amazing son, handsome and bright, full of life. Mr. Marblehall, now approaching 70 seems out of place as father to such a child. All of his neighbors think so and say so though not to his face. He still doesn’t really do much, reads copies of Amazing Stories magazines to pass the time, but he seems very happy to be married and to have a family at last. He still makes regulartrips away from home on business.
Guess where he really goes…..
On the other side of town, among people who do not know his ancestral home, he has a second wife, whom he also married just after he turned 60, and two more children who do not know about the other life he leads when he is away on business. Here his neighbors also talk about him when he is not around, wondering why a man would want to marry and start a family at age 60. Here he is also happy, spending most of his time with his family, reading copies of Amazing Stories magazine.
No one suspects anything. No one thinks much of Old Mr. Marblehall. No one bothers about him because he is not someone they would bother about. What if he is caught someday? What if he is never caught? No one in Natchez cares one way or another and it seems Ms. Welty is happy to have him carry on with his double life.
You can find “Old Mr. Marblehall” in Thirteen Stories by Eudora Welty.
F.X Toole: Most people probaby know “Million Dollar Baby” from the film version starring Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank. The film is faithful to the short story by F.X. Toole. The character Morgan Freeman plays has been added to flesh things out, but the overall spirit remains the same. So if you have seen the movie, is there any reason to read the short story? My answer is yes.
F.X. Toole writes about the world of boxing that he knew so well, but his stories are not Rocky stories, there is never a big win at the end. Mr. Toole’s stories are about the people who didn’t make it big but stayed in boxing anyway, unable to walk away from the sport that consumed them. “Million Dollar Baby” is almost an exception. Maggie Fitzgerald enters boxing late in life and convinces trainer Frankie Dunn to take her on, to train her to become a real boxer. Frankie makes his living from boxing, has for decades, and has seen it all. He is looking for a new boxer, one that can make enough money so that his share will fund a nice retirement. He has no interest in taking on a girl boxer. He thinks they are a gimmick and he fears he would have to cut back on his cursing if he did.
Maggie is unrelenting. She spends hours in the gym, turning away other trainers who show interest in her. No one but Frankie will do. Eventually Frankie agrees to become Maggie’s trainer and manager. During the time he spends with her, he begins to develop a strong bond with this promising woman from the Ozarks. Frankie knows everything about boxing and it’s here that the story can offer much more than the movie can. The ins and outs of boxing and the boxing world that Frankie teaches Maggie make for interesting reading. Here I find F.X. Toole combines what is best about sports non-fiction with what is best about sports fiction. He educates us, but we never stop to see that he is educating us, we are so well entertained.
Remember that this is not a Rocky story. There is no happy ending here. Maggie comes from a poor white trash background, she has escaped it to get to Los Angelos and Frankie’s gym but she’ll get no further in the end. However, it’s in the end that Mr. Toole shows what a brave writer he is. After Maggie is paralyzed in a fight, Mr. Toole’s characters are faced with very difficult decisions, bad things happen to them, but Mr. Toole never shys away from his subject matter. When there is no easy road open to take, he does not force one on his story. Instead, his characters make difficult decisions, ones that would paralyze his readers. The results are controversial but they are never forced and they are always believable, always human. It’s this humanity combined with an exstensive knowledge of the boxing world he writes about that make Mr. Toole’s stories such compelling reading.
You can find “Million Dollar Baby” in Rope Burns by F.X. Toole.