Tag Archives: short stories

Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing by Doris Dörrie

German literature monthDoris Dörrie is one of my favorite German filmmakers (Cherry BlossomsNobody Loves MeAm I Beautiful?), so I was delighted when I discovered a few years ago that she was also a published author, and, what’s more, that some of her work is available in English. This makes her a perfect read for German Literature month. Back in 2011, I read her wonderful novel Where Do We Go From Here? , a very funny look at how a middle-aged couple seek Enlightenment in various ways. In Dörrie’s short story collection: Love, Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the theme is the toxicity of domestic life and in these 4 stories, we see people altered by suburbia and routine go off the rails in spectacular ways.

love pain and the whole damn thingIn the first story, Straight to the Heart, a young impoverished, seemingly unconventional music student named Anna, who has blue hair and plays saxophone in the park, accepts an offer from a middle-aged dentist named Armin to become his mistress. To Armin she seems both exotic and approachable:

“I sense an excitement that unfortunately has been missing in my life for the most part until now.”

She understood at once. “What sort of excitement is that?” She smiled because her blood suddenly began to course faster.

“The excitement of just for once becoming a different person than you already are–because of a second person.” Now he was grinning. “An illusion. But so much more intriguing than reality.”

He installs her at his country farmhouse with a year’s contract and pay of 2,000 marks a month. The relationship is awkward at first, but Armin is an attentive and considerate lover. The couple make a trip to America together, and Anna gets a brand new red fiat for her 21st birthday. But all that is unconventional about Anna dries up with the routine of domesticity, and the story’s focus is what happens when Anna realizes that the contract will not be renewed.

The second story is Men, and if you’re familiar at all with Doris Dörrie’s fabulous films then you will recognize the title. In this story, middle-aged Julius Armbrust, who “designed packing concepts,”  is told by his wife, Paula, that she is having an affair with the very scruffy, penniless Stefan. Julius has had many affairs of his own, but after hearing the details, Julius feels threatened:

Was the same age, he was, she said. Name? Unimportant. Occupation? She didn’t know exactly, something in the artistic line, she hadn’t asked him, the most important thing after all was that … That he was good in bed? After that, she had nothing to say to him.

While Julius heads to the office every day, Paula spends time with her lover, a man who drives an old Beetle, and Julius begins spying on the couple. Julius disappears from Paula’s life, using a fabricated affair as an excuse, and he reemerges and reinvents himself as Stefan’s new roommate. Men argues that we lose our identity in the day-to-day grind of making money, paying bills, and holding down tedious 9-5 jobs. Over the years, our relationships stale and we lose sight of who we used to be.

Marriage is also examined in Paradise, my least favorite story in the collection. In this story, the relationship between a long-married husband and wife shifts when an acquaintance from the past re-enters their lives.

My favourite story is Money. This is the tale of a married couple, Carmen and Werner Müller, in debt, hounded by consumer-driven teenagers, and facing losing their home, who turn to a life of crime. This is really a very funny story with some twists and turns. The emphasis is on humour and proletariat reclamation:

Carmen Müller, thirty-five years old, married to Werner Müller for fourteen years, two half-grown children, Karin and Rainier, with a house, a car, television and VCR, a deep freeze, but no vacation for five years now and debts galore, Carmen Müller, cleaning lady with fourteen years experience, she thought to herself as she wiped up the flooded bathroom where a hose on the washing machine had burst during the night, while Karin aloofly scrambled over her, heading for the mirror and ardent application of her make up.

I am my children’s employee.

Karin and Rainier are critical of their parents, and Karin tells her mother that they “could do a little better job keeping yourselves up.” That criticism comes easily and doesn’t stop the teenagers from seeing their parents as living, breathing never-empty wallets. Carmen and Werner are now “fat and flabby,” and Werner hibernates in the bedroom with a terminal case of depression. He works in a toy factory which produces war toys, but, according to Werner’s boss the business is crashing:

“Our specialty is war toys, after all, and orders have been… this whole peace movement thing has played havoc with us. We’ve got to rethink things, here, look at this” –he pointed to small plastic men meant to look like policemen, while down the belt next to them little barbarians rolled. “Those are the demonstrators, and these are the police. The game’ll be called Battle at the Reactor, and if that doesn’t sell, we can close up shop…”

While in Men, one of the characters reinvents himself, in Money, Carmen and Werner undergo a transformation with hilarious results. Leaving suburbia (Carmen doesn’t know what to pack for “the underground,“), and their ungrateful children behind, they embark on a life of crime. Through these stories we see stale relationships worn out by time and familiarity, and husbands and wives who lose sight of who they really are through the day-to-day drudgery of working lives. Doris Dörrie’s mischievous, spirited take on domestic life shows us how people hang on to the familiar and the comfortable, and yet once they’re set loose, things may never be the same….

 Translated by John E. Woods.

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Filed under Dörrie Doris, Fiction

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki

This New York Review Books edition of The Un-rest Cure and Other Stories by Saki is a compilation from several different collections. There’s a total of 26 stories here:

From Reginald:

Reginald at the Carlton

Reginald on Besetting Sins

Reginald’s Drama 

From Reginald in Russia:

The Reticence of Lady Anne

The Strategist

From The Chronicles of Clovis

Tobermory

Mrs. Packlehide’s Tiger

The Stampeding of Lady Bastable

The Unrest-Cure

Sredni Vashtar

Adrian

The Quest

The Peace Offering

The Talking-out of Tarrington

The Hounds of Fate

From Beasts and Superbeasts:

The Boar-Pig

The Open Window

The Cobweb

Fur

From the Toys of Peace:

The Guests

The Penance

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Quail Seed

Mark

Fate

The Seven Cream Jugs

the unrest cureSaki, whose real name was H. H. Munro (1870-1916), was a British satirist best remembered for his many short stories which skewered and satirized Edwardian society. New York Review Books took a chance with this volume as these collections are free for the kindle, but in this volume, the wit of Saki is paired with the art of Edward Gorey, and it’s an excellent match.

You can’t read these droll stories and imagine for a moment that you are reading anything but a British novelist, and the amusing Reginald stories, full of one-liners, reminded me of PG. Wodehouse more than anyone else. Reginald’s wit is often at the expense of his listening audience–people who just don’t ‘get it.’ In Reginald at the Carleton, the duchess and Reginald converse and touch on the subject of Lady Beauwhistle’s aunt, a woman the duchess claims is “sweet.”

“And so silly. In these days of the overeducation of women, she’s quite refreshing. They say some people went through the siege of Paris without knowing that France and Germany were at war, but the Beauwhistle aunt is credited with having passed the whole winter in Paris under the impression that the Humberts were a kind of bicycle….”

But for this reader, the best stories in the collection are The Chronicles of Clovis. These hilarious, subversive tales, rife with mischief & savage wit, are superb. I simply loved Clovis, a young man who undermines the decorum of Edwardian society at every opportunity, and behind that comment comes the thought that I would love to be Clovis, stirring up mayhem every chance I got.

In the title story, The Unrest-Cure, Clovis is traveling when he overhears a conversation between two men on a train. One of the men named Huddle, complains to his friend that although he’s only a little over 40, he’s become “settled down in the deep groove of elderly middle-age.” For Huddle and his sister, everything in life must remain the same; they loathe change of any sort, even if it’s a “trifling matter.” The latest disturbance in routine involves a thrush who has built its nest in a new location. To Huddle, the change is “unnecessary and irritating.” Huddle’s friend suggests an “unrest-cure.

“You’ve heard of Rest-cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.”

“But where would one go for such a thing?”

“Well, you might stand as an orange candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the *apache headquarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner’s music was written by Gambetta; and there’s always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home. How you  would do it, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Clovis, while he appears to have a languid nature, is never short of ideas and energy when it comes to creating mischief and social sabotage, so he decides to impersonate a bishop’s secretary and visit Huddle who is subsequently provided with the dastardly “unrest-cure.” The outcome is maliciously hilarious, but underneath all the humour, Saki seems to be making a statement about the passivity of the average person when confronted with “authority” and a particularly nasty agenda.

In “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” Mrs Sangrail tries to pawn off her son Clovis on Lady Bastable for a few days while she goes to Scotland:

It was her invariable plan to speak in a sleepy, comfortable voice whenever she was unusually keen about anything; it put people off their guard, and they frequently fell in with her wishes before they had realized that she was really asking for anything. Lady Bastable, however, was not so easily taken unawares; possibly she knew that voice and what it betokened-at any rate she knew Clovis.

Lady Bastable still has memories of Clovis’s last stay and isn’t too keen to take responsibility for him again. Mrs. Sangrail’s assurances that Clovis has matured don’t impress Lady Bastable who argues that “it’s no use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving yourself.” But in spite of Lady Bastable’s wariness of Clovis’s “irrepressible waywardness,” she agrees to babysit Clovis in exchange for the cancellation of a gambling debt. Clovis, however, has his own reasons for wanting to go to Scotland, and so he forms a diabolical plan…

There were moments when Clovis could easily have been a character in an Oscar Wilde play. His glib, confident, impromptu fabrications reminded this reader of The Importance of Being Earnest. Full of caustic, yet eccentric wit, these short stories are best savoured slowly, one at a time.

Review copy.

* Apache gangs, known for their savagery, operated in Paris from the late 1800s but disappeared during WWI

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth

This Close by Jessica Frances Kane

A few years ago, I read the excellent novel The Report by Jessica Frances Kane. This was an unusual book which concerned the 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster, a horrific true incident. Given the subject matter, The Report could potentially have been a very dry read, but the story was written with impressive sensitivity which effectively conveyed the lasting impact of the tragic event for those involved.

This CloseNow author Jessica Frances Kane follows up that first novel with a collection of 12 short stories: This Close–a collection that focuses on the complexities of relationships. In the first story Lucky Boy, and my favorite in the collection, the author delicately explores the silent, impenetrable divisions of class. The protagonist, a young man named Henry patronises a dry cleaners operated by two young Korean women. Over time an uneasy ‘big-brother’ relationship develops between Henry and Owen, the young son of one of the owners. It’s an awkward relationship, and one that Henry is never comfortable with, but then again, he’s not comfortable with using a dry cleaning service in the first place or with “members of the service industry” in general. Henry understands, unlike his much more affluent friend Christina, that most people who “serve” others aren’t thrilled about it, and bear no deep-abiding love for those in a higher station in life who can afford to make life a little easier for themselves. 

I’d observed Christina’s family and friends and the way they sometimes talked about their relationships with members of the service industry. I thought it was a way of seeming to have servants without admitting you wanted them. Mr. Greene, for example, an expensive florist Christina’s parents had been using for years, was said to have been waiting to do Christina’s wedding since she was a baby. ‘He just loves her,” her mother would croon.

It’s the Gone-with-the-Wind fantasy–our slaves/servants love us so much, they would be happy to be slaves for us even if they weren’t paid!  As Henry becomes more involved with Owen, he simultaneously becomes more involved with Christina. We know these parallel paths can’t continue–something has to give. There’s a moment when Henry’s life could go in an entirely different direction, but then again there are plenty of indications that he’s not a decisive person and will bend with the stronger wind.

Some of the stories in the collection are connected, and this device somehow made the stories seem richer. Perhaps this is because the author picks up her characters at several points in their lives or views them from different angles. In American Lawn, Pat answers an ad for a plot of land placed by a man named Kirill. Kirill who has limited English, and who lives in an apartment, wants a piece of land that he can garden in exchange for vegetables. The plan goes well, until the boundaries of the relationship become blurred and complicated by the neighbor Janeen. Essentials of Acceleration brings more focus on to  Pat’s neighbor “go-getter” Janeen.

One family–John, Elizabeth and their daughter Hannah appears at different times in their lives in three connected stories: The Stand-In, The Old Beginning, and another favourite Local Birds. The problems within the family are re-visited with each subsequent story and the problems haven’t gone away but have morphed or mutated, so the mother, Elizabeth who is”disengaged with the world” in The Stand-In is still basically the same in Local Birds, a story that occurs much later in the characters’ lives, but the difference is that over the years, Hannah no longer tries to understand her mother’s peculiarities. In Local Birds, it’s John’s retirement party, thrown by Hannah for her father and some of his closest work associates. Elizabeth makes a brief appearance, but with her typical behaviour, she soon bows out:

Once upon a time Hannah would have searched for reasons, too, desperate to placate and include a mother who needed to remove herself. Now she is calm and helpful, a remarkable transformation. John wonders how she managed it. He thinks of all the times he might have intervened in the past, all the roads he might have gone down trying to negotiate between them during the difficult years. He believes not one of those roads would have led here, to this night, the three of them together. His mistake would have been to assume at any point that their problems were more than a stage. Everything is stages. He’s glad he stayed out of it.

Of course, John’s thoughts aren’t exactly accurate. Elizabeth’s withdrawal is not a “stage” as it’s a continued behaviour. Nothing is ‘solved’; it’s simply that now Hannah, for better or worse, now accepts her mother’s behavior without question. Is this a sign of maturity on Hannah’s part, an acceptance of the inevitable, or a sort of denial that there’s a problem?

Other connected stories are: Lesson,  First Sale, Double Take, Night Class–all glimpses at moments in the lives of a woman named Maryanne and her son, Mike. Lesson and Night Class both felt rather undeveloped and were snapshots rather than substantive stories, but apart from that This Close is an excellent, polished and perceptive collection. I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years, and while I’ve found many new authors this way, I’ll add that collections of interconnected stories by one author have a special allure, and reading this collection reminded me of Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda stories. Many of the stories in This Close explore the fuzzy space between the people we are and the people we’d like to be through the turning points in various relationships. While the recognition of the difference between who we are and who we’d like to be is a sign of maturity, the author, shows us that turning away from opportunities to become a better or different person can also be an acceptance of an easier choice of less self-examination, and in lives scarred by misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes, often the easier path is the road of less resistance and change.

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Moscow but Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

The cover of the short story collection, Moscow but Dreaming caught my eye. I’d never heard of the author Ekaterina Sedia before, but since I have a fondness for most things Russian (Ekaterina was born and raised in Moscow but now lives in New Jersey), I decided to read the book–and this in spite of the fact that I wasn’t sure that the collection was my sort of thing at all. I admit that I didn’t care for the first story, but by the time I got to the next one, I was hooked into reading this beguiling, eclectic mix. History, fantasy, science fiction, and even the macabre, yes it’s all here from the talented and multi-track mind of this young Russian author whose work, peppered with elements of folklore and the supernatural stretches genre boundaries in a China Mieville/Neil Gaiman sort of way. Here’s her website, and just the design alone should give you a hint of this author’s work.

moscow but dreamingOne of my favourite stories is Citizen Komarova Finds Love and concerns the displaced, impoverished Countess Komarova, who following the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, finds herself displaced from her family’s ruined mansion and working in a shop in the town of N.

The owner of the shop, a man as old as he was ornery, let her rent the room above the shop, where the wind howled under the roof thatched with a ragtag team of tiles and shingles. There was a small and round metal stove, known colloquially as ‘bourgeoisie,’ as indiscriminate and insatiable as its namesake: it burned books, pianos, furniture, twigs and entire palmate fir branches, crackling birch logs. It gave back cherry-red heat that spread in waves through the room over the shop, and broke over the stained walls, much like the distant Mediterranean over its rock shores.

Countess Komorova, now plain citizen Komarova, spends a great deal of time on her memories–in particular, a childhood holiday spent in the Mediterranean.  The bleak winter days of the Revolution continue, and “whatever nobility survived” gravitate to the shop, and hoping to gain a few coins, they drag their bedraggled finery with them. Naturally there’s not much of a market, and the goods pile up waiting for the buyers who never come. Since the shop is run on consignment, there’s not much to lose.

The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komorova, who in her entire lifetime never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.

But then one day, in comes a different sort of customer, a Red cavalryman who brings in four horseshoes. He returns several times and with each visit, the items he brings are stranger than the ones before….

Another favourite is Tin Cans, a story told by an elderly night watchman who considers himself lucky to get a job at the Tunisian embassy, once the house of Beria. This is a ghost story, but even so there’s a marvelous quote about Brighton Beach–a place the old man has visited:

I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like the tin can tied to a dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.

The narrator, who’s one step from extreme poverty, feels lucky to get the job, but the nights in the embassy halls bring no peace, and instead the night watchman glimpses ugly scenes of Russian history.

But all the stories are not concerned with Russian history.  One story Hector Meets the King presents a different version of the Hector of the Iliad. In One, Two Three, set in America a desperate childless couple adopt a “malevolent house spirit,” a Kikimora, and in There’s a Monster Under Helen’s Bed, an American couple adopt a very damaged Russian child. The latter, is, of course, rather topical thanks to Putin’s recent decision to ban the adoption of Russian children to America.

Another story I really liked was Yakov and the Crows, a story about an office worker who befriends crows that visit the workplace looking for food, and there’s also Chapaev and the Coconut Girl–a story about a young Russian woman  working in America who having developed AI cockroaches in her lab, works on developing an AI Chapaev, a man she “worships.” The Bank of Burkina Faso concerns the deposed Prince of Burundi who now lives in a Moscow apartment scheming of ways to collect his millions which are in the elusive Bank of Burkina Faso. I thought this was going to morph into a con-artist story, but instead this became a story of collective dreaming. Anyway, this has to be the imaginative short story collection I’ve come across in some time, and that makes it difficult to put into any sort of neat, descriptive box. The introduction by author Jeffrey Ford mentions the description Magical Realism, at the same time noting that this is a “weak term” when applied to Sedia’s work. Magical Realism, IMO opinion, fits well with Spanish literature, but with Russian literature, we’re looking at something much more nebulous–something that sits uneasily on the fringes of evil–the dark and treacherous space between how we live and what we endure.

Review copy

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The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.

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Filed under Bunin Ivan, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gogol, Nikolai, Gorky Maxim, Leskov, Nikolai, Nabokov, Pushkin, Tolstoy

The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories by Prosper Mérimée

Prosper Mérimée’s (1803-1879) short novel, A Slight Misunderstanding was one of the delights of 2011, and so when I saw that Alma Classics (formerly Oneworld Classics) published a volume of this author’s short stories translated by Douglas Parmée, well, I knew I had to read it. At just over 100 pages, The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories is a slim read and includes:

The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden

Tamango

The Etruscan Vase

A Hanging

The Blue Room

H.B

Those who read and loved A Slight Misunderstanding will remember the role the title played in the tragic drama that played out which involves not a slight misunderstanding (that’s a major understatement) but a huge misinterpretation of intent. Another ‘misunderstanding,’ if you will, occurs in The Etruscan Vase–a story which involves a misinterpretation of a lover’s behaviour.

The misinterpretation also occurs in the story The Blue Room. In this story two lovers elope on a train and their romantic isolation on a carriage is interrupted by an English traveller who’s carrying a bag which contains a large amount of money. The young couple, even though deep in the throes of passion, cannot help but notice the wad of cash, and they also notice a tattily-dressed young man who is apparently following the Englishman.

The train had arrived at N–.The Englishman got out first and as Léon was helping his companion to climb down from their coach without showing her legs, a man jumped down onto the platform from the next coach. He had a pale, even sallow face, hollow, bloodshot eyes and was ill shaven–often a strong indication of criminal tendencies. His clothes were clean but worn; his jacket, originally black, had gone grey at the elbows and down the back; it was buttoned right up to the chin, no doubt to hide an even more threadbare waistcoat.

Love the unshaved look observation. The shabbily-dressed man, as it turns out, is a impoverished nephew of the Englishman. The nephew wants money, and an ugly scene takes place. The young eloping couple depart for their hotel, but once again the romance is interrupted. This time it’s officers of the 3rd Chasseurs hosting an all-nighter for the 3rd Hussars right next door to the young couple’s room. Unable to sleep due to the endless noisy drinking and “ribald” stories, Léon leans out of the hotel window and notices the Englishman’s nephew suspiciously loitering in the grounds outside….

Tamango is the story of a slave uprising. Again we see the author’s delight in the ironic touch when he describes the slave quarters on the ship jammed packed with “black ivory“–the cargo the one-handed Captain Ledoux is transporting for sale on his ship named Hope (there’s that irony again). Ledoux has invented a new way of carrying cargo as Mérimée shows us with both irony and sarcasm:

With the blacks sitting with their backs to the hull in two parallel lines, there was room in all the other slave-trading vessels for people to pass through. Ledoux had the brilliant idea of using this space to put other blacks, lying at right angles to those who were sitting. In this way, his ship could hold about ten more slaves than other ships of the same size. At a pinch, he could have squeezed in a few more, but one mustn’t be inhumane. You have to have at least five feet in length and two in breadth for a black to enjoy his trip during the crossing, which might take six weeks or more. “And after all, ” Ledoux said to his shipbuilder to justify his generosity, “blacks are human beings as much as whites are.”

The story The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden is one of Mérimée’s earliest stories and reminiscent of Hoffman, it’s the weakest of the bunch. Rather unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the non-fiction pieces the most. The Hanging, in which the author recalls a very real event is moving but without sentiment in its recollection of the hanging of a murderer in Spain, a majo or buck who killed a man for an insult. Mérimée notes that he “shall never forget that man,”  a fine specimen who is forced by circumstance to participate in a spectacle involving a number of priests, monks, officers, a penitent and a “life-size” crucifix. The condemned man begins walking proudly but begins sinking as he approaches the  gallows. This is a man whose name is lost to time, and yet Mérimée captures the moment and freezes this spectacle of punishment forever.

For this reader, the gem of the collection is H.B. which, as Douglas Parmée explains in the introduction (and thanks Alma Classics for having the translator write the intro and not one of the many celebrity intro authors who seem to not have read the book), is more or less an “obituary” of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The two men met in 1823 and they corresponded and met occasionally over a twenty-year period until Stendhal’s death in 1842. Here is a beautiful passage Mérimée wrote about his friend:

I’ve attended three pagan burials; The first of a man who’d blown out his brains. His teacher, a great philosopher, and his friends were afraid of shocking respectable public opinion and no one dared speak out. The second was of Monsieur Jacquemont, who’d forbidden any speeches or sermons. The last was Beyle’s.

There were three of us present and so unprepared that we didn’t know his last wishes. On each occasion, I felt that we had in some way been found wanting, if not towards the dead man himself, at least towards ourselves. If one of your friends dies on a journey, you feel sorry not to have wished him goodbye before he left. Departure and death require commemoration with some ceremony; there’s something solemn about it. Even if it’s only a meal, a gathering of like-minded people, something needs to be done and that is what Elpenor is asking for, not just a little patch of soil; he wants to be remembered.

In another section of the piece, Mérimée describes Beyle:

 He displayed blatant contempt for the French national character and eloquently proclaimed all the faults of which our great nation, no doubt unfairly, stands accused: flippancy, thoughtlessness, irresponsibility in thought and deed–all of which he basically shared himself, to a high degree. To mention only one example of his thoughtlessness: when French Consul in Civitavecchia, he sent the French Foreign Minister a letter in cypher–enclosing the code in the same envelope.

What a marvellous tidbit about Stendhal, and one that grants us a unique glimpse into this author’s character. Mérimée appears to have loved Stendhal, and the piece is written with a strong sense of poignancy and loss. Mérimée recounts Stendhal’s opinion on Napoleon (“hard to discover,“) and ranging from thinking Napoleon “a social climber, dazzled by the false glamour of fame,” to “expressing for him an admiration verging on idolatry.” Mérimée notes his friend’s flaws and admits Stendhal’s tendency to “inconsistency.” There are some marvellous details of Stendhal’s experiences during the Russian campaigns.

But perhaps of the greatest interest is the section in which Mérimée discusses Stendhal’s views on love & women, for here, almost by default, we can pick up Mérimée’s inadvertently expressed opinions. At one point, Mérimée recalls Stendhal asking for advice regarding a countess who spoke using the familiar “voi.” Stendhal asks his friend whether or not he should rape the countess and Mérimée is all for it. Again this brought back the carriage scene in A Slight Misunderstanding, and perhaps most telling, Stendhal held the view that “any man left alone with a woman should have a go at her.” This was apparently one of his maxims, and while this was a time in which women weren’t supposed to be alone with men other than their husbands, priests and a few select male relatives, Stendhal’s attitude seems … extreme. 

Concluding the volume with its stories not as fine as Mérimée’s novella,  A Slight Misunderstanding, I carried away a desire to read more Stendhal, for Mérimée grants us an intriguing glimpse of a flawed yet interesting man. As Douglas Parmée says, it’s an “endearing” portrait, and I can’t think of a better term.

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Skin by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“Somebody had a seriously screwed-up upbringing.”

Last year I read and throughly enjoyed the hard-boiled crime novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, from authors Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Mickey Spillane is best remembered for his iconic bad-ass anti-hero, Mike Hammer (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick), and when Spillane died in 2006, he left several unfinished manuscripts along with the instructions that they should go to his long-time friend, Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition). The good news for Hammer fans is that Max Allan Collins, Spillane’s natural successor, has put those manuscripts to good use, and as a result new work is surfacing: Kiss Her Goodbye, The Goliath Bone, Dead Street, The Consummata are all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Skin, a short story is the latest work to appear. Mickey Spillane apparently began the story in 2005, and chronologically it places Hammer in one of his last cases before retirement. It’s a slight work in comparison to the other, weighty novels in which violent action slams down hard on the heels of more violent action. Still for fans, Skin, which runs at round 41 pages, brings back Hammer, and I for one am always glad to see this character. Yes, he’s labeled with a lot of very PC-unfriendly words, but for this reader, he’s also a breath of fresh air.

The story begins with Hammer and Pat Chamber, captain of Homicide staring at a mangled pile of flesh that looks like “roadkill” located just off the side of the road. This is Hammer’s grisly find, and it’s an incident which underscores the idea that Hammer is a trouble-magnet.  Along with the unidentifiable flesh is one intact hand, and that hand belongs to missing Broadway producer, Victor King.

Hammer meets King’s wife who also happens to be the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance. She’s not exactly ruffled by her husband’s disappearance:

The next morning around ten, I was sitting in the lavish living room of Victor King’s penthouse apartment on upper Fifth Avenue, with a view on Central Park. The furnishings were vintage art deco and what wasn’t white was black, and what wasn’t blond wood was chrome, and everything had curves. Including Mrs. King, who was also blond. As expected, she was a very lovely twenty-five or so; the stark red of her silk pajamas matched her finger-and toenails, jumping out at me  like the devil against the white of the couch, her legs crossed, a hand caressing a knee. Her mouth was similarly red, but her eyes were baby blue with blue eye shadow and a sleepy look, like a cheerleader on her third  beer after the big game.

I couldn’t imagine any man wanting to sleep with her, unless he was heterosexual and had a pulse.

So the grieving widow puts Hammer on retainer and he takes the case….

Since this is a short story, and an action-packed one at that, there isn’t much down time and the scenes seem to spin through at warped speed. Soon Hammer has a good idea of what kind of monster he’s hunting, and he delivers his own special Hammer-style justice which has very little to do with judges and courtrooms.

The gristly, hyper-violent Skin places Hammer close to retirement, and in this story, he clearly knows his physical limitations. He hasn’t changed, but he has aged, and so the story’s title has several meanings. Hammer still feels strong sexual attraction to women, but now he’s at the point that he’s not going to take the bait. Instead it’s all business, and Hammer doesn’t believe in leaving loose strings behind.

Review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Spillane Mickey

Osborne’s Revenge by Henry James

Emma recently read and blogged about one of my favourite Henry James novels, Washington Square, and I was motivated to return to one of my favourite authors. It was a matter of luck that I selected the short story, Osborne’s Revenge (1868), which clocks in at a mere 28 pages on my kindle, for the story is not only a perfect companion piece to Washington Square, but it’s also quintessential James.

The title indicates where the story will take us, but since this is Henry James, nothing is simple, and a great deal is submerged beneath that oh-so-polite behaviour. The story opens with the statement that “Philip Osborne and Robert Graham were intimate friends,” but to outsiders, the relationship is a “puzzle.”

Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one whose nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham’s partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectively relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being “effeminate”) were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast “case.”

Following the advice of his physician, Graham is spending the summer at some medicinal springs in New York. Osborne hasn’t heard from his friend in some time when he finally receives a letter in which Graham confesses that he remains at the springs as he is “charmed” by a young woman he met there. From a mutual acquaintance, Osborne learns that Graham has fallen in love with a certain Miss Congreve, and that an announcement of an engagement was expected when a Mr Holland appeared at the resort and that Miss Congreve precipitously “transferred her favours” to the newcomer. According to the mutual acquaintance, the gossipy witness, Mrs Dodd, Graham is dying from a “broken heart.” Indeed, Graham seems to be shaken by the affair and shortly afterwards, he commits suicide.

Osborne doesn’t recover from his friend’s death and with some notion of revenge, he travels to Newport in order to seek out Miss Congreve….

This is a wonderful early Henry James short story, and as we so often see with this author, the main character (Osborne in this case) is actually outside of the main story–the failed love affair between Graham and Miss Congreve. All of the passion–the courtship, jealousy, despair and suicide have occurred off the pages, and instead we have Osborne left with the aftermath. Once again we see the passivity of Jamesian inaction, the complexities of human behaviour, motivation and psychology, and the turmoil of unexpressed emotion just underneath the surface of polite society.

How would Charlotte or Emily Bronte dealt with such a plot as Osborne’s Revenge? A rhetorical question, of course, but their pages would have included more passion, more action, and yet perhaps James’s subtle story is so exquisite because it’s fairly easy to step into the shoes of Osborne and hover around Miss Congreve as he tries to hate her, struggles with indecision and tries to make her pay for the death of his friend.

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All These Little Worlds: A Fiction Desk Anthology II ed. Rob Redman

I freely admit that I bought a kindle version of All These Little Worlds–an collection of short stories from The Fiction Desk–primarily for the promised short story from Charles Lambert. I’ve throughly enjoyed two novels from this author: Little Monsters and Any Human Face, and considered it worth the purchase of the collection for his short story alone. But I had a second motive afoot….Something exciting and rather daunting is happening in the world of publishing. It’s a paradigm shift of seismic proportions, and people are taking charge of their own writing careers through blogs and e-publishing. Conan Kennedy’s book: The Colour of Her Eyes–a superior crime novel in my opinion–and one that certainly surpasses many crime novels that went through regular channels of committee selection and publicity campaigns etc–is a prime example of an author acting on his own initiative and getting his book out there.

While publishing giants merge together, we’ve also seen a number of fascinating small presses spring to life: Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Dalkey Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, Oneworld Classics, Hesperus Press (I’m sure I forgot some names), and for those of us who don’t care for the bestseller lists, these small presses give an alternative. And that brings me to my second reason for buying All These Little Worlds–because it’s an effort by an independent voice. I’ll also admit to a sense of curiosity; I read a lot of short story collections, and some of the big names always get a showing. What about those who are not so famous?

All These Little Worlds includes nine stories, and as editor Rob Redman states in the introduction, while “it’s sometimes tempting to publish a themed volume,” it’s also a limiting choice. Whatever the selection process was, the result is superior, and if there is a dominant undercurrent in this volume, it’s arguably an underlying subversivenes that challenges our notions of traditional relationships

So here’s the story rundown:

Jaggers and Crown by James Benmore is the story of a comic team who rather like an an old married couple battled themselves and their demons through the course of several decades. It’s 2011 and Kevin Crown recalls his turbulent relationship with Sonny Jaggers. They first teamed together in the early fifties, and enjoyed a successful radio career before making the leap to television. A few years later, with Sonny’s drinking increasingly out-of-control, there’s a lucrative contract from ITV, and while Kevin is ambitious and conscientious, Sonny’s binges are taking a toll on the team. On the Fiction Desk blog , Benmore  explains that the story grew from his interest in British comedy programmes, and that if Jaggers is based on anyone, then that person would be Kenneth Williams. For this reader, the references to the scenes in which Jaggers and Crown share a bed is reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise, a remarkable duo who also shared a bed (you can find the skits on youtube). The story explores the turbulence behind the comedy and also shows how when one member of a comedy duo dies the survivor dies by default too.

Jennifer Moore’s Swimming with the Fishes is an odd but delightful tale of a couple of children whose sibling rivalry fixates on a fish tank. You’re not going to get any more info than that as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who’ve yet to read it. I don’t usually care for stories told by child narrators so I was skeptical at first, but the story is so perfectly written that I was never quite sure exactly what was ‘real’ and what was the child narrator’s imagination.

The third story is Charles Lambert’s Pretty Vacant–a title certainly inspired by one of my favourite bands–the Sex Pistols. It’s set in the 70s and here’s how it begins:

Three days before my fifteen birthday my father kisses me on the lips, pinches my left cheek until it hurts, says he’ll always love me and flies off to Madagascar with his new girlfriend, Mia. I’ve seen her once or twice in the back of his car or waiting outside his secretary’s office with a magazine, Bella or Chi, chewing the inside of her mouth, and I’ve wondered who she is. Someone who needs a job and is scared she might not get it, I thought at first, so I was half right; living with my father is a sort of job. My mother’s pretended not to notice . She’s getting ready to move into our summer house near Alghero.

The narrator, Francesca, is shipped off to a boarding school in England with the weak excuse that she needs to “perfect” her English. She’s angry and out-of-place, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she hooks up with an admirer of the Red Brigades, Gary, a young man who hangs out in a nearby squat. Just as in Little Monsters, Lambert explores the adolescent world in which adults rarely venture, here we see the fallout of Francesca’s summer in exile.

Room 307 is from novelist Mischa Hiller. It’s the story of Callum, a married traveling salesman who runs into temptation. I loved this story for its moral complexities and the exploration of one event that will have lifetime consequences. Callum finds himself in a situation in which the choice he makes doesn’t bring quite the result he expects. Here’s Callum sitting in the hotel restaurant, lonely and bored as he waits for his unexciting meal to arrive:

He sipped at his half pint of lager and studied the generic artwork on the walls. he had stayed in many of this chain’s hotels and they all looked the same. same faux-traditional pub decor in the restaurant, same anodyne and inoffensive prints on the walls, same bored staff in white and black, same tiny en-suite bathrooms with mouldy grouting round the shower end of the bath. They didn’t even have a newspaper at reception he could hide behind, and he had left his petrol-station thriller in his room.

But Callum’s evening is about to change for the better… or so it seems….

Dress Code by Halimah Marcus, a wonderful story about a teacher who goes off the rails big-time, tied in very well to the recent reading of You Deserve Nothing. As the title suggests, this is a story that involves the element of school uniforms, and the story evolves around Episcopal Academy’s Casual Fridays“–the one day of the week when students are allowed to wear something other than their uniforms.  To English teacher, Linus, he “knew there’d be problems as soon as he read the letter [from admin], which included a list of forbidden garments and areas of flesh.” What happens to poor Linus is funny in a strange sort of way because as readers we can see it coming as we witness Linus stepping right into a PR/PC nightmare. Author Halimah Marcus captures perfectly the sense that teachers sometimes have that the best way to reach students is through honesty and utter equality, but that idea is a philosophical mirage as there are two sets of standards in the power-dynamic for students and teachers and Linus finds that out the hard way.

The Romantic by Colin Corrigan is the rather sad story of an Irish  one-armed poet who meets a lonely American woman in a pub. It’s a painful reality check evening in more ways than one.

In After all the Fun We Had by Ryan Shoemaker, a desperate school administrator, terrified by dwindling attendance figures goes all out to lure pupils back to the classroom. His methods become increasingly outrageous, and all this bribery devolves to its natural and comic conclusion.

In Glenda by Alan Jury, Charlie a young man whose wife has left him finds himself embroiled in a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. Meanwhile his wife, Kathy is living with an “over-groomed sales director in Bristol.”

Glenda had first come to the house on the Saturday after Kathy had left him, and that same night the two of them had gotten riotously drunk together for the first time.

There’s another child narrator in Get on Green by Jason Atkinson. The child narrator is 4-year-old Tonya, and the story follows Tonya’s day at school as she moves from reality to sleep, role models to rebellion, and all this while school dominates with images of conformity.

Hunting for new authors, I read a lot of short story collections, and this is the best overall collection I’ve read this year. The 3rd issue of anthology is due out in the new year, and you bet I’ll be buying it. The anthology is available via subscription but I bought mine via the kindle. Rock on 21st century….

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Filed under Atkinson Jason, Benmore James, Corrigan Colin, Fiction, Hiller Mischa, Jury Alan, Lambert Charles, Marcus Halimah, Moore Jennifer, Shoemaker Ryan