Tag Archives: short story collection

Family Matters: Elizabeth Berridge

Elizabeth Berridge’s foreword in Family Matters, a collection of 16 stories, is strong stuff:

There is no substitute for the family. It is society’s first teething ring, man’s proving ground. When repudiated it still leaves its strengthening mark; when it does the rejecting, the outcast is damaged. Within its confines, devils and angels rage together, emotions creep underfoot like wet rot, or flourish like Russian ivy. It is the world in microcosm, the nursery of tyrants, the no-man’s land of suffering, a place and a time, a rehearsal for silent parlour murder. 

These stories focus on different aspects of family life, and it should come as no surprise, thanks to that excerpt from the foreword, that these relationships are often toxic. While the stories dissect various relationships, several of the stories examine the life of widows as they ‘move on.’ Some of the stories are from the 40s while others were published closer to the time of this book’s publication (1979)

Here’s a breakdown of the stories: 

Idolatry in the Afternoon

Breakthrough

Between the Tides

Time Lost

Mr. Saunders

Growing Up

The Beacon

Lullaby

The Story of Stanley Brent

Subject of a Sermon

The Notebooks

The Prisoner

Tell it to a stranger

Breath of Whose Being?

Under the Hammer

Nightcap

Of course with this many stories, I have some favourites. Idolatry in the Afternoon is the tale of 86-year-old Great-aunt Esmé who is visited by William and Kate.  Great-aunt Esmé tells the story of her Uncle Claud, a man who rented a little house in which he discreetly entertained his mistresses. But discretion falls by the wayside when Esmé overhears the servants gossiping about Claud, a divorce and takes note of the statement: “I never thought it counted as adultery if you did it in the afternoon.” This bit of information, not understood by Esmé and her sister Lila, disastrously slips out at the church bazaar tea. 

But the story is more than a memory; it’s also William’s smary, superficial  relationship to his Great-aunt, and Kate’s discomfort and feeling of exclusion when William and Esmé chat. 

Comfortably, Great-aunt Esmé switched off her lamp and composed herself for sleep. Well  they were all gone now, and she was the only one left. Kate was a little like Lila, kind but judging. She wouldn’t approve of the end of the story. And that young scallywag William –well, he didn’t want to hear old women’s tales. Men became bored so quickly, and then they went away … no she wouldn’t tell them.

What a fuss! By tomorrow she’s have forgotten it, anyway. Another bit of cargo dropped overboard to lighten the boat on its lonely journey over a darkening sea. 

In Breakthrough, a recent widow, Mrs. Jameson, is downsizing and moving into a flat. This means that she needs to get rid of many precious family possessions. Her pregnant daughter, Tessa, is supposed to be helping, but Tessa barely manages to hide her impatience. There’s little affection between the two women, and Mrs. Jameson, who relied on her husband for a great deal of support, isn’t coping well with widowhood. There’s resentment brewing in Tessa, and when her mother reaches out for emotional support, Tessa takes the opportunity to strike. 

Time Lost is a cautionary tale. Pat visits Aunt Tazie in Wales every summer. Although there are other nieces, Pat and Tazie have a special relationship. Pat loves visiting Aunt Tazie as ” we were both great readers, the two of us.” So there’s a meeting ground where they read together and squabble over various fictional characters. At one point, Pat asks Aunt Tazie if she’s read Proust:

At once, she blushed, like a child stealing jam, and said in a whisper, “Oh I long to read Proust! I’ve promised myself Proust for years … but I’m leaving him till last, like a bonne bouche.” She gave me a hesitant look, “I’m saving him up for my deathbed, my dear. What a beautiful way to drift off.”

“It will have to be a long deathbed, then Aunt Tazie.”

Life has a way of playing tricks with our plans, and so it is with Tazie with her “longed-for, saved-up pleasure of this last bonne bouche, this Madeleine which had also turned to sawdust in her mouth.”

Mr Saunders is the story of an inmate in a mental home. The narrator’s Uncle Albert is the superintendent and Mr. Saunders, a long-term patient, and an artisan, has become a sort of hospital mascot. He’s allowed a great deal of freedom with Uncle Albert’s permission. …

Under the Hammer is another great favourite. There’s an estate sale afoot at Glanbadarn, and sensible Bella Linton can’t resist going to the sale. Bella is the daughter of a “previous” vicar and the widow of the local doctor. Her father was great friends with the old squire, also known as the Colonel. Bella’s father, the vicar marries again after the death of his first wife, and Bella finds herself with a stepmother and a step sister, Phoebe. Phoebe eventually marries the squire’s son, but now she is a widow too, and she’s shedding the great house that belonged to her husband’s family for many generations. To Bella, the house has many wonderful memories, and Phoebe’s decision to sell it along with its hordes of treasures of the past, seems like sacrilege.

Bella leaned against the big window that looked into the courtyard at the back of the house, then aside at her young step-sister. Young? She had always considered her to be so, and now she saw that age had not withered so much as preserved her. Now her skin showed a certain dryness, as if it might suddenly flake off. Hers was not a body to sag into old age and death; it would explode into dust, each particle dancing with its owner’s infuriating vivacity.

All the village is gathered to bid for items that will look incongruous in their modest homes. Some desire a slice of memory from the great house and others cannot hide their glee at acquiring an item owned by the Rushby-Knightons.  Bella finds that the visit to the house stirs resentment at her stepsister but more than that, she remembers how “always she had left Glanbadarn Hall with more than she came: a bunch of roses, a basket of peaches from the hothouse, asparagus, black grapes.” And then Bella commits an unpremeditated act that she did not think she was capable of. 

The 16 stories showcase the author’s range and talent at dissecting the power of memory and magnifying the complex dark corners of human relationships. We seek companionship, love, friendship and yet all those things often twist with a bitter sting, for in long-term relationships we so often cannot resist evening the score. Here Elizabeth Berridge shows women who are adjusting to being alone, women who confront their pasts, a lonely spinster on holiday, a mother whose charitable occupations alienate her son, a strange triangle which occurs between a married couple and a single male friend, a spinster who becomes attached to a German POW, a widow who prevaricates over the sale of her late husband’s papers, two sisters who meet a clairvoyant, and a rancid moment in a decades long marriage. There was only one story I disliked and that was Lullaby

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A Nail, A Rose: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“One part evil is always much more powerful than one part good. Evil has a habit of leaking, spreading out, overlapping.”

a nail a rose

I came to author Madeleine Bourdouxhe a few ago via the film Gilles’ Wife– a great, if somewhat depressing film. The book was a stunner. I also read Marie which I found disappointing. So on to a short story collection from Pushkin Press: A Nail, A Rose. Here’s the contents, and there’s an excellent introduction from translator Faith Evans who provides a bio of the author, an analysis of her work and a recollection of meeting the author.

A Nail, A Rose

Anna

Louise

Leah

Clara

Blanche

René

Sous le Pont Mirabeau

For those who’ve read Madeleine Bourdouxhe before, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that some of these stories depict the toxic, brutal relationships between men and women. In A Nail, A Rose, it’s WWII, Irene is walking at night, recalling her lover Danny:

Danny and Irene: that she did understand, she understood it perfectly, and she thought it meant she could understand the rest of the world as well: Danny and Irene, and the whole world. But she would never understand the line that ran between them, like an arrow with a sharp point at either end. And the whole world was now this line. 

Her memories include the times of their “savage” “love-making” full of “hope and despair,” when she’s suddenly jolted back to reality by an attack from a hammer-wielding assailant. She confronts her attacker, and suggests that they divide the contents of her handbag. One thing leads to another and then he’s holding her with an obvious erection. The next day, the assailant, Jean, shows up at her house to check on her:

What a strange episode this man who’d not been afraid to return. Neither perfection nor eternity; some good, some evil. And while she waited, the mould was rising in layers, in the world and in her heart.

The stories have a dream-like quality to them as though the women featured here drift through their experiences. If you’ve read, Gilles’ Wife (or watched it) you know what I mean, and while Madeleine Bourdouxhe writes about the inner life of women, we repeatedly see women who exist on a physical level while their minds hook them, by the necessity of survival, into a different realm. In Blanche, for example, the main character is “an absent-minded woman” who “often forgot things” and is considered “stupid” by her bore of a husband.

It was then that Louis had passed the kitchen door with his hat and coat–“Goodbye, Blanche.” She waited for the layers of air to re-form themselves and be healed, for them to join up again and for the air to be one, without fissure or tremor, and for peace to inhabit her.

The gem of the collection is Sous le Pont Mirabeau. There’s something special about this story, something different, shimmering, and perhaps that’s because it’s based on the author’s own experience. In this tale, a young woman gives birth to a baby girl the day the Germans invade Belgium. Loaded into a lorry with her newborn, she makes the hazardous journey to France. Many people, seeing the mother and baby, give assistance, and the story, set amidst a moment of human tragedy, glows with hope and strange, surreal experience:

In the evening, the roads were dark yet they thronged with people, bumping into each other, still hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. It was full of people and quite dark, until the great green and red arc lights shone out over rooftops, walls and faces. 

She stayed still for a moment, the child in her arms, overawed. Above her was the beauty of the guns. A second of immobility was enough to embrace, and reject, the beauty of the guns, denuded, useless, miraculous, valuable only in their own right. But what if this beauty was meant to become embedded in the secret of all things, to flourish on the greens and the reds of nature and the rhythms of the earth? Or perhaps to be exploited, warped, faded, false as the beauty of the helmeted warrior and his steel blade false as the beauty of the dead hero–kissed, corrupted, rejected? Above her was the beauty of the guns.

Translated by Faith Evans

Review copy

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Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

“Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments.”

Alphonse Daudet’s Artists’ Wives easily makes my best-of-year list. This themed collection of short stories argues “again and again that artists cannot be happily married.” The idea exists (is it broadly accepted?) that Art is a jealous mistress, and Daudet shows this argument to be true, repeatedly, through his stories. Yet it’s not as simple as that: Daudet creates 12 stories, 12 situations if you will, which argue his point from various, cleverly devised angles. The book begins with a prologue in which “two friends–a poet and a painter” spend an evening together. After dinner, the poet, who is single, declares that he envies his married friend, and so a dialogue begins with the painter stating categorically that artists “ought never to marry.”

Here’s the breakdown of the stories:

Madame Heurtebise

The Credo of Love

The Transteverina

A Couple of Singers

A Misunderstanding

Assault with Violence

Bohemia at Home

Fragment of a Woman’s letter found in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs

A Great Man’s Widow

The Deceiver

The Comtesse Irma

The Confidences of an Academic Coat

Daudet doesn’t just create an artist (who by the way can be a poet, a writer, a singer, a sculptor, a painter) who neglects his wife and dallies with his latest muse; no, Daudet is too ingenious for that. He creates 12 different scenarios of domestic hell all built around the complexities and complications of placing an ‘artist’ in the relationship.

Artists wives

Madame Heurtesbise would be arguably the one of the most predictable scenarios were it not for the sting in the story’s tale. Madame Heurtebise is seen as an unpleasant, pretentious woman:

having a certain love for glitter and tinsel, no doubt caught at her father’s shop window, making her take her pleasure in many-coloured satin bows, sashes and buckles; and her hair glossy with cosmetic, stiffly arranged over the small obstinate, narrow forehead, where the total absence of wrinkles told less of youth than of complete lack of thought.

This story, of a writer who marries an unimaginative woman, reminds me of the misery of married life found in George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

The Credo of Love, one of my favourites due to its dark humour, is the story of a woman who dreamed of being “the wife of a poet,” but instead she is married off to a wealthy, older man whose one “passion” is gardening.

She remained like this for a long time, closed in by the four walls of the conjugal garden, innocent as clematis, full however of wild aspirations toward other gardens, less staid, less humdrum, where the rose trees would fling out their branches untrained, and the wild growth of weed and briar be taller than the trees, and blossom with unknown and fantastic flowers, luxuriantly coloured by a warmer sun.

Bored, she turns once more to poetry, and then “at the terrible age of thirty, which seems to be the decisive critical moment for woman’s virtue” she meets “the irresistible Amaury,”

a drawing-room poet, one of those fanatics in dress coat and grey kid gloves, who between ten o’clock and midnight go and recite to the world their ecstasies of love, their raptures, their despair, leaning mournfully against the mantelpiece, in the blaze of lights, while seated around him, women, in full evening dress, listen entranced behind their fans.

Amaury  is “a desperate man such as women love, hopeless of life but irreproachably dressed, a lyric enthusiast, chilled and disheartened, in whom the madness of inspiration can be divined only in the loose and neglected tie of his cravat.”

A Couple of Singers is the story of two opera singers, one male, one female, who fall in love, inevitably, after singing love arias on stage to each other night after night. You’d think this match should work, after all, both husband and wife have the same career, but Daudet explores what happens when one partner in the marriage becomes more popular than the other.

A Misunderstanding is a he said/she said comparison (literally side by side pages) of a bickering couple.

Assault with Violence is a rather funny short story in epistolary form with lawyers writing back and forth and Nina, a woman who married a writer, sending letters about the situation to her aunt “an old maid.” Oh the horrors of married life to a “Bohemian.

A Great Man’s Widow, another favorite, concerns a woman who marries a musician who after 15 years of miserable married life, has the grace to die.

On the high road to fame, over which he had so triumphantly and hurriedly traveled, like those who are to die young, she sat behind him, humble and timidly, in a corner in the chariot, ever fearful of collisions.

But with the death of her husband, the widow finds that she has a newly gained stature: she is now the widow of a Great Man, and she capitalizes on this situation, becomes insufferable, marries a younger less well know musician and incorporates him into the cult-like worship of the dead man.

The Deceiver has a mystery at its dark heart, and The Comtesse Irma, sticks with me still–the saddest story in the collection.

I am impressed by Daudet’s agile mind and the subtle nuances of the stories. In the exploration of human nature, these stories are reminiscent of Balzac. The introduction from Olivier Bernier goes into Daudet’s life along with a description of how he stood as an artist during his lifetime.

Translated by Laura Ensor

 

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The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Kafka

Kafka’s The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man includes a stellar introduction from translator Alexander Starritt. I have respect for intros from translators; after all they are the ones who slaved over the words, mulling over one choice over another, so if anyone ‘deserves’ to write an intro, it’s the translator IMO. Starritt’s intro is lively, fluid, and well … interesting:

In English, the word that usually follows ‘Kafkaesque’ is ‘nightmare’. Hardly the thing to make you think, ‘Hurray, a new translation. No Netflix for me tonight.’ And in truth, Kafka’s work is more respected than it is loved.

These first sentences hit a chord with me. I have lost count of the number of times The Metamorphosis popped up again and again in literature class after literature class. Yes the story (while I liked it) became a ‘No-Exit’-Not-Again nightmare in itself.

Unhappiness

Starritt argues that these short stories present an entirely different view of Kafka, and I agree. These stories are mercurial, some are absurdist, and the closest thing I could compare to is absurdist Russian fiction. These stories (and some are extremely short) are not at all what I expected from Kafka. Some stories are flash fiction–if we could imagine such a term applying to Kafka. Other stories are longer, and of course, as is with all collections, some stories are stronger than others.

The title story: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man is a good idea of what to expect here. I read it on my kindle and it’s just over a page long. This is a single man who rues the things he’s missing:

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation

The last lines were unexpected and made me chuckle. Again–not at all what I expected from Kafka.

In The Married Couple, a sales rep takes his sample case to a man known as N. The sales rep and N used to work together, but now N, a much older man is bed-bound and possibly close to death. Yes, perhaps this sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect from Kafka, but the final delivery is not.

A First Heartache is a short tale of a trapeze artist who in the quest to perfect his art becomes increasingly isolated. The abnormal becomes normal and he clings to his life on the highwire. He:

had arranged his life in such a way that, initially out of a striving for perfection, then out of increasingly tyrannical habit, he stayed on his trapeze day and night for as long as an engagement lasted. His modest needs were catered to by a rota of attendants who were posted below and hauled everything up and down in specially made containers.

The trapeze artist is “in constant training, of keeping his art at its peak.” This becomes a way of life, this increasing isolation, and the only thing that disrupts this routine are the unavoidable transfers from venue to venue, which badly disrupted his peace of mind.”

Another top pick has to be In the Penal Colony, a story of a researcher who travels to a penal colony only to be invited to attend the execution of a soldier “who’d been sentenced to death for disobeying and insulting a superior officer.” The story centres on the machine that will do the deed. It’s a diabolical contraption designed by the former (deceased) commandant. The machine is sadistically designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering over a twelve hour period before the final coup de grâce.

While the officer explains the machine’s processes of torture “with great zeal,” the condemned man, who has no idea of the fate that awaits him is at first disinterested (the officer and the researcher speak in French) but then he becomes increasingly curious as the machine’s mechanisms are explained:

The condemned man looked as submissive as a dog, as if they could have let him wander around the slopes on his own, and would only have needed to whistle for him when they wanted to start the execution. 

The officer’s matter-of-fact approach to explaining the machine is, of course, bizarre and yet entirely believable. This method of execution has become an institution in the penal colony, but now it has fallen out of favour. The condemned soldier has not been given a trial and is unaware that he has even been sentenced to death. According to the officer, “it would be pointless to tell him.” Torture and death as spectacle: what is there about these things that appeal to people? The matter-of-fact bureaucratic manner in which the sadistic death is explained moves the execution away from the idea of suffering and into efficiency. Couldn’t help but think of the Nazis.

This collection rolls in at just under 200 pages. I think the stories are best read one at a time, rather than in chunks.

Review copy

Translated by Alexander Starritt

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Midnight All Day: Hanif Kureishi

When it comes to writing about relationships, author Hanif Kureishi is unsparing.  Some of us might add the description cynical, but others might add pragmatic. Midnight All Day is a collection of short stories in which troubled relationships are at the fore. Some relationships are dying, some are just beginning, but regardless where the relationships place on the longevity scale, nothing is ever simple. Here’s a list of the stories:

Strangers When We Meet

Four Blue Chairs

That Was Then

Girl

Sucking Stones

A Meeting, At Last

Midnight All Day

The Umbrella

Morning in the Bowl of Night

The Penis

In Strangers When We Meet, Rob, an actor, is supposed to go on holiday with his older married mistress, Florence, but when her husband inconveniently (and at the last minute) decides to take the trip with her, all the plans are ruined. Rob finds himself in a small seaside town, booked into the same hotel as Florence and her husband. In fact Florence and Archie are in the room next door, and when the story opens, Rob has his ear to the wall trying to hear what is going on between Florence and her husband. It’s rather funny in a dark, twisted way, as Rob feels that the husband is the usurper, not him. Rob is, at first, really upset that his holiday is ruined, but seeing Florence with her husband somehow places her in a different light.

midnight all day

In Four Blue Chairs, a man and a woman who had an affair and subsequently left their partners decide to host their first dinner guest as a couple. Their decision to buy new chairs throws their relationship into question and also serves to show how the relationship will be conducted moving forward.

In That Was Then, Nick, a former pop journalist, now a married, respectable writer agrees to meet his former lover, Natasha. Nick is a bit worried about the meeting as Natasha is from his wild past:

We are unerring on our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something–to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead, or, worst of all, give us the impressions that they are not inappropriate, but almost right, thus hanging us in love’s limbo.

If you are a writer and yearn to be published, then Sucking Stones may be a difficult story to read. This is the tale of middle-aged, divorced Marcia, a teacher, who fits writing in with everything else–raising a child as a single parent, working, cooking, etc. After getting a short story published, she started a writers’ group, and its members are “all, somehow, thwarted,” in their writing careers. Marcia thinks that the other writers in the group make “crass mistakes” yet are “astonished and sour” when this is brought to their attention. Marcia “didn’t believe she was such a fool.”

One day Marcia meets a popular author at a book signing. The author invites Marcia to her home, so things are looking up for Marcia. Is someone finally taking her seriously?  It’s a painful encounter, but it’s worse when the author pops into Marcia’s home:

Marcia and Alec were having fish fingers and baked beans. Aurelia must have been close; Marcia had hardly cleaned the table, and Alec hadn’t finished throwing his toys behind the sofa, when Aurelia’s car drew up outside. 

At the door she handed Marcia another signed copy of her new novel, came in, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

What a beautiful boy,’ she said of Alec. ‘Fine hair–almost white.’

‘And how are you?’ asked Marcia

‘Tired. I’ve been doing readings and giving interviews, not only here but in Berlin and Barcelona. The French are making a film about me, and the Americans want me to make a film about my London.’

While Marcia struggles to find time to write, she wants her mother to pitch in caring for Alec. The contentious meetings between Marcia and her mother highlight their opposing needs:

‘What about me?’ said mother. ‘I haven’t even had a cup of tea today. Don’t I need time too?’

Marcia also has a strangely complicated yet no-strings relationship with Sandor, an underemployed Bulgarian who works as a porter. He’s content and happy with his circumstances, happy to read, drink and sleep with women. His contentment is in contrast to Marcia’s rather frazzled desires to write.

While I didn’t care for a couple of the stories: Girl and The Penis, I enjoyed the others immensely, and the collection is a good reminder of how much I like reading this author. In these stories we see how people are part of our lives but then we (or they) move on. Phases might be a better way of putting it–people are in certain phases of our lives but then things change.  Do we change? Do our tastes change? Do our needs change?  In Strangers When We Meet, for example, the story moves forward in time. Rob is now successful  and when he meets Florence again, she’s … a bit desperate. Ex spouses, ex lovers, yes they may hold a place in our past, but life is in a continual state of flux. Nothing is static.

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Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

Review copy

 

 

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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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Foreign Bodies: Martin Edwards ed.

“We want to murder someone. We haven’t the courage to walk up to him and attack him, or for that matter to strike him from behind. So we go to the corner drug store, buy a penny’s worth of rat poison, and give it to the son-in-law, the man across the street, the husband, the lover.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of The British Crime Classics series, published here in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The short story collection, Foreign Bodies, edited and introduced by Martin Edwards, contains a wide range of short stories from all over the globe. We readers often seek out books from other countries and chew over the customs, traditions and beliefs. Foreign Bodies shows that international flare aside, murder… occurs everywhere and for the same reasons: greed, rage, jealousy are all ingredients that, when explosive enough, can add up to murder.

Here’s the list of contents:

The Swedish Match: Anton Chekhov (Russia) Translated by Peter Sekerin

A Sensible Course of Action: Palle Rosenkrantz (Denmark)

Strange Tracks: Balduin Groller (Hungary: Romania after his death)

The Kennel: Maurice Level (France)

Footprints in the Snow: Maurice Leblanc (France)

The Return of Lord Kingwood: Ivans (Netherlands) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Stage Box Murder: Paul Rosenhayn  (Germany)

The Spider: Koga Saburo (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Venom of the Tarantula: Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (India) Translated by Sreejata Guha

Murder à la Carte: Jean-Toussaint Samat (France)

The Cold Night’s Clearing: Keikichi Osaka (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Mystery of the Green Room: Pierre Véry (France)

Kippers: John Flanders (Belgium) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Lipstick and the Teacup: Havank (Dutch) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Puzzle of the Broken Watch: Maria Elvira Bermudez (Mexico) Translated by Donald A. Yates

I’m not going to discuss all the stories in this wonderful collection–after all, the themes are murder and detection, but I will discuss some of my favourites. The Chekhov story, The Swedish Match seems to have fun with the detective genre, while The Kennel is short, vicious and horrific. Shades of Joseph Conrad linger in Kippers.

If spiders creep you out, then you will shiver over The Venom of the Tarantula and The Spider. In The Venom of the Tarantula, a man is asked to discover how a bedbound “foul-mouthed; mistrustful, crafty malicious” writer continues to get a supply of his favourite drug: the venom of tarantulas.

The Spider is eerie, unusual and gripping. In this tale, a young man is employed to enter the abandoned laboratory of Tsujikawa, a dead professor, who died of …  yes you guessed it … a bite from a poisonous spider.

At first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe. 

The narrator is asked by the dead professor’s family to go into the building which is full of jars of “monstrous spiders.” He’s supposed to dispose of them, and after all … the one that killed the professor may still be loose.

I knew where The Return of Lord Kingwood was headed, but I enjoyed the character of Mr Monk (and his bribery of a local lad) so much that I didn’t care that the story’s trajectory was predictable.

Murder à la Carte deals with the subject of poisoning in an intriguing way:

Poisoning? What with? With anything you choose! Or nothing whatever! I mean just that. People don’t realize it, that’s all. They think they know; they really don’t know anything about it. They think that you have to use a poison. Strychnine? Obviously strychnine is a poison. A killer. But the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are too well know. And besides, you have to get strychnine. But why bother with strychnine? You talk about poisons. There are hundreds of effective poisons. Ah, but their symptoms, too, are all known? And even those whose symptoms aren’t known reveal themselves in the autopsy? Well there are things which are poison, and things which are not poison. Poison and nonpoison. There’s no trick about murdering with poison; any fool can do it, provided he has the killer instinct, or the desire, or the need. 

The Stage Box Murder is an epistolary between a young man and the girl he hopes to marry when his fortunes improve. A murder opens up a career opportunity for the young man, but the crime brings a famous American detective to the scene…

A Sensible Course of Action from Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz is set right after the Russian civil war and concerns a beautiful Russian countess who claims that her vengeful brother-in-law, who is hot on her heels, intends to kill her. Lieutenant Holst is called in to investigate a situation that requires no small amount of diplomacy. Holst tends to dismiss the Countess’s claim (the fact that she’s female works against her), and yet … there’s always the thought of recent Russian political events:

The whole business mighty have come out of a Russian novel, but in Russia, as one knew from the newspapers, anything was possible. 

Included here is yet another new name for me: Maria Elvira Bermudez “One of the most prolific female detective fiction writers in the Spanish-speaking world,” and here I’d (shamefully) never heard of her, and that brings me back to the collection’s merit. I’d never heard of most of these writers, but according to the intro before each story, these authors were prolific, popular and important to the genre in their respective countries.

This is a wonderful collection for crime aficionados and it’s a great way to collect names that we may not have heard of before. Martin Edwards provides a brief, yet informative intro, focusing on literary careers, of each writer.

review copy.

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The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

“I realized how unnecessary, trivial and false everything had been that prevented us from loving each other. I realized that when you are in love, you must start your reflections about your love with what is highest, what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, or sin or virtue in their accepted senses–or you shouldn’t reflect at all.”

The Beauties, from Pushkin Press, is a splendid collection of Chekhov short stories. These 13 stories examine many facets of Russian life through the themes of love and loss, and that elusive, shimmering moment: when all that is important in life becomes crystal clear.

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love

Grief

The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

The Beauties is told by a man who recalls seeing two remarkably beautiful girls over the course of his life, and he notes how this beauty struck him on two different occasions: the desire to be near beauty, and also a sadness, a sense of longing.

Whether I envied her beauty, or whether I was sorry that this girl was not mine and never would be mine and that I was a stranger to her, or whether I had a vague feeling that her rare beauty was accidental , and like everything on earth, would not last; or whether my sadness was that special feeling aroused when a person contemplates real beauty-God only knows!

I loved The Man in a Box (a Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich story) for its intense character study of the neurotic teacher Belikov:

That man showed a constant, overpowering urge to surround himself with a sort of wrapping, to create an outer box for himself, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Reality upset him, frightened him, kept him in a constant state of alarm; and perhaps it was to justify this timidity on his part, his aversion towards the present time, that he always praised the past, and things which had never been. 

Although Belikov is in many ways, an introvert, nonetheless he dominates his surroundings and manages, through his warped sense of duty, to make everyone in his circle miserable. Belikov’s downfall, his bête noire, if you like, is love which appears in the form of Varenka, the sister of another teacher.

The Beauties

About Love is another one of Chekhov’s Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich stories. The narrator, Aliokhin relates how he fell in love with a married woman, and how we question love too much, intellectualize it when in fact we should just act:

And we too, when we’re in love, never stop asking ourselves questions–whether this is honorable or dishonourable, sensible or stupid, where this love is leading, and so forth. Whether all that’s good or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s unsatisfying and upsetting and gets in the way. 

My favourite story in the entire collection is The Bet. This is a story that covers a fifteen year period and concerns a bet (19th century Russian bets always seem extreme) that takes place over the question of whether or not the death penalty is preferable to a long, solitary prison sentence. I can’t say much about this story without giving away some of its most delightful elements, but I will say that this story shows how well Chekhov understood human nature and why he is a master of the short story.

A couple of the short stories are a touch too sentimental for me, but overall, this is a magnificent collection. Of course, it includes The Lady With the Little Dog, which is arguably Chekhov’s most famous story–at least it seems to be the one that makes the anthologies so often. I’ve read this story many times, and yet I read it again, and this time I found it even more poignant than I remember. This collection is superb: either a great introduction of those new to Chekhov, or a great reminder of this writer’s phenomenal talent.

I wish Gooseberries had been included, but it isn’t, so now off to read it.

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy

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