I’ve been slowly migrating the reviews I wrote for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., since I started this new one. Ready When You Are, C.B. has gone from over 1000 posts on 8 pages to just under 200 posts, so it has taken some time. Not everything made the cut, either. Today, since it’s been too long between short story posts, I thought I’d bring the rest of the short story reviews over in one omnibus edition. Here they are. Hopefully, you can find one you’ll enjoy.
Few people do revenge as well as Edgar Allan Poe. In his short story “The Cask of Amontillado” revenge, like certain types of good wine, is best served cold.
“The Cask of Amontillado” is a familiar title– one of those stories most people know about, but few people have read. The subject matter is not safe for public school textbooks; the story is not very nice.
The narrator does not like Fortunato. We get the sense that he has long held a grudge against him, that the un-named insult he speaks of in the opening line is just an excuse. He’s been waiting a long time for a reason to do away with Fortunato. During carnival he takes advantage of Fortunato’s drunken state and leads him down into a deep crypt with the promise of an excellent cask of amontillado wine. Fortunato is a connoisseur. He trusts the narrator completely, and willingly follows to his doom, a pathetic figure in his jester costume. The narrator plans to chain Fortunato to a wall while he is drunk and then seal him in behind a brick wall, leaving him buried alive where no one will ever find him.
Somewhere, someone must have written a paper on the use of bells in Edgar Allan Poe. Here, they are the last sound Fortunato makes. Chained, alone, in the darkness, finally becoming sober just as the narrator places the last brick in the wall that will seal his death chamber, Fortunato drops his head, defeated, and the bells on his jester’s hat jingle.
It’s enough to give you nightmares, which is the whole point with an Edgar Allan Story. It’s too bad it’s not in textbooks. I know more than a few students who’d enjoy it. Who dreams of revenge more than high school students do?
A farm girl becomes too attached to another, a youngster obsessed with John F. Kennedy takes her brother on a fateful boat ride, a father recovers from a stroke, one woman is abandoned by her lover, a mother dies–the stories that make up “Heavier Than Air” by Nona Caspers paint an intimate portrait of small town America, even when they take place in the big city. Her characters are so rooted in the rural countryside, that they take it with them when the move away. You can’t escape your family, not when your roots are deep.
The best of the stories in “Heavier Than Air,” Nona Caspers new volume of short stories, are about farm girls. Ms. Caspers clearly has a great affinity for the experience of growing up in rural America; it shows in both the depth of her understanding and her empathy for her characters. She understands the way Carson McCullers understands. In “Country Girls” the fourteen year old narrator moves to a Minnesota farming town where she begins to fall in love with Cynthia, the girl who lives on the neighboring farm. The young narrator is mystified by love. She wonders why her father married her mother not her aunt whom he seems to prefer; she becomes interested then obsessed with Cynthia’s family, and in the end publicly declares her love for a horrified Cynthia at the town dance. What does one do after that?
Outsider girls grab Ms. Caspers’ attention in “La Maison de Madame Durard.” Two young women spend a night trying to have some fun. They end up driving around with two guys they meet in a bar whom they later abandon by the road as they slowly discover their true interest is in each other. This same type of girl can be found at a younger age in “Wide Like an Eagle’s Wings” and all grown up in “The EE Cry” and “Mother”. Ms. Caspers writes about other types of people, writes about them well, but it’s these girls and the women they become who stay with the reader long after their stories end.
In “Mother” a young woman, Deborah, is abandoned by her lover, who simply states that she is in love with someone else and can’t stop it. Deborah calls her mother who comes out to San Francisco from Minnesota to help Deborah find a new apartment and to visit the city for the first and probably only time. Deborah’s mother liked her ex-lover, thought she was a charmed girl and said so. She does not seem to know what to do with Deborah now that she is single, now that she has to face her without someone to divert them both and provide each with a safe distance. Mother and daughter visit a series of bad apartments and begin to grow on each other’s nerves even as they begin to grow on each other. There is some unfinished business between them, some few things that now separate them much more than either ever thought possible. In the end, there is a small epiphany, a moment when Deborah really sees her mother and loves her as she is, fully aware of how alike the two of them are. Many of us only get these small epiphanies. Ms. Caspers understands how important they are.
The is much to enjoy in Heavier Than Air by Nona Caspers, and many rewards to be found in its pages. I’m giving the book four out of five stars. I look forward to her next volume. This book came to me via Andilit. Please take a trip over to her blog sometime.
One of the challenges I signed up for this year is the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge. The idea is to assign 52 different short stories to one card in a deck, then draw a one each week and read the corresponding short story.
I decided to liven this up a little bit by reading and posting on two stories at once. My own personal challenge will be to find a way to link the two random stories. Today my challenge is to connect a story by Tobias Wolff with a story from the Welcome to Bordertown anthology of urban fantasy. We’ll see how it goes.
“The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff is a slice of life story about a brother and sister who have a relationship that has stood the test of time and trial by fire. In “The Night in Question” the brother is trying to tell his sister a story he heard in church. Although he has only recently become a convert to full bore Christianity, she is already tired of hearing him tell stories from sermons. This story is about a man faced with the terrible choice of either sacrificing the life of his beloved son or the lives of five strangers.
The sister stops her brother before he can finish. She has had enough of her brothers terrible church stories. She knows the message will once again be about how right it is to sacrifice one person for the lives of many others and that this will tied to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. The sister, who has sacrificed so much for her younger brother, born so much suffering from his years of addiction, their father’s abusive behavior, years a sacrifice for her little brother, cannot bear the suggestion that one life should ever be forfeit for the sake of another. After all they have been through the idea of sacrificing the one person you love to save the lives of strangers is something she cannot countenance.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Bordertown series an introduction is in order. Terri Windling invented Bordertown in the mid-1980’s as a place where everyone could come and play. The idea is that there is a town between the human world and the elvish world of faerie called Bordertown. There humans, who cannot enter the world of faerie can mingle with elves who cannot enter the world of humans. Terri Windling came up with the world and invited everyone to submit stories set there. Since Bordertown first appeared five volumes of short stories and three novels have been released.
Will Shetterly’s “The Sages of Elsewhere,” which appears in Welcome to Bordertown is about a human man who runs a bookshop in Bordertown, the secret dream job of every genre fan. When he is offered the chance to purchase a rare magical book, he does so reluctantly only to find the book talks back when spoken to. He hopes to quickly move the book on to a prospective buyer as soon as he can, but a talking magical book means an elvish origin and this means trouble for a simple bookstore owner.
Soon, there is a mob outside his door figuratively demanding his head on a spike, threatening both his life and his livelihood and a talking book just really isn’t much help in the circumstances.
So how does this fantastic story in the realm of faerie relate to a slice of life a la Tobias Wolff?
Both are about stories, the power of stories and collectors of stories. “The Night in Question” features a brother who collects anecdotes from sermons and a sister who doesn’t want to hear them. “The Sages of Elsewhere” features a bookstore owner who must get his book into the hands of the right buyer. In each the root of the problem comes from people trying to deal with a story they don’t want, to hear in “The Night in Question” and to own in “The Sages of Elsewhere.”
One story is stopped before the end; the other ends with a book that turns its pages into wings a flies away.
This is what I get for cheating on a challenge….
Since I’ve long had this collection of essays by George Orwell on my TBR short story shelf, I decided to include some of them in my deck for the Deal Me In Challenge. Because I’m a natural over-achiever, I decided to up the ante and make my own version of the Deal Me In Challenge by drawing two cards (stories) at a time and finding some way to connect them. It’s proven difficult.
It’s tough to think of two authors who could be further apart than the two I drew this time around, George Orwell and Isak Dinesen. Adding to the challenge is the particular essay I drew, the seven of diamonds, “Inside the Whale,” which is largely a review of Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer. It’s also a meditation on the writers of Miller’s generation and the generation proceeding him with a healthy mix of political history thrown in. It’s terrific. So far, every one of the Orwell essays have been wonderful. He’s a master of the form.
Just as Isak Dinesen is a master of her form, the short story. The eight of spades was “The Dreaming Child” from Winter Tales. It’s not quite a fairy tale, but almost. In “The Dreaming Child’ a destitute, unmarried woman leaves her baby son, along with a 100 rixdollars payment, with a boarding house keeper in a disreputable section of Copenhagen, The boy is raised by Mamzell Ane, another boarder, who tells him stories about the wonderful life he left behind where he was the child of wealthy aristocratic parents who lived in a fine house and will one day return to take him home.
Mamzell Ane essentially convinces the little boy that he is a character in a piece of fiction:
It was, she said, by no means unheard of, neither in life nor in books, that a child, particularly a child in the highest and happiest circumstances, and most dearly beloved by his parents, enigmatically vanished and was lost. She stopped short at this, for even to her dauntless and proven soul the theme seemed too tragic to be further dwelt on. Jens accepted the explanation in the spirit in which it was given, and from this moment saw himself as that melancholy, but not uncommon, phenomenon: a vanished and lost child.
(I love how Mamzell Ane equates life and books. What’s in each is equally real, equally valuable as evidence.)
Just before the boy turns six, a wealthy, childless woman arrives seeking to adopt the him. He believes she is his long lost mother, finally returned to take him home.
“Mamma,” he said, “I am glad that you have found me. I have waited for you so long, so long.”
Once he arrives at his new home, a mansion in a much better section of Copenhagen, the boy soon convinces everyone in the house that he really is the couple’s son and that he remembers everything and everyone in the house from the time before he was lost. His new parents, and the household staff, soon are caught up in the boy’s story. Not only do they believe him, they are the better for it. Each member of the household begins to become the person the boy remembers, a better version of themselves.
Orwell’s essay on Henry Miller and the generation of writers between the World Wars is about what makes Miller’s characters so compelling and why his writing benefits from avoiding direct political engagement.
How can these connect?
In his essay “Inside the Whale” Orwell discusses what it’s like to read Henry Miller:
“When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into mere verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surrealists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. “He knows all about me,” you feel; “he wrote this specially for me.” It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.
If we can read the boy in “The Dreaming Child” as an writer, a creator of tales, this is just the reaction he produces in his audience, his new parents and their household staff. They come to believe he really did know them because he understands them so well. So much so, that by the story’s end, the wealthy woman who took him in confesses to her husband that he really is her long lost son, the product of a failed relationship she had before marrying into the position she now enjoys.
I know this experience of finding an author who understands me. I almost always feel it with Tennessee Williams who somehow managed to loosely most base all of his plays on various members my family though no one in my family ever met him.
Which author best understands you?