Recent Reading: Short Stories

I. Xingu [1900] by Edith Wharton – ★★★★★

In this story, one intellectual reading club is led by one Mrs. Ballinger and composed of a number of ladies of distinction, i.e. “huntresses of erudition”, “who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone”. Mrs. Ballinger is the epitome of proper behaviour, but is also described as having a “mind [like an] hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board”. Mrs. Roby is the newest addition to this elite club who gained her entry by way of one gentleman’s recommendation. However, she does not seem to fit and does and says the wrong things. That is, until Mrs. Ballinger and the other ladies invite a respected female author Osric Dane to talk about her latest book and that “inadequate” Mrs. Roby asks Ms. Dane to comment on one supposed book titled “Xingu”. The uttering of that word “Xingu” is that Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday Party moment in this story which precedes changing power dynamics and the quiet, or maybe not so quiet, disintegration of the club’s supposed erudition.

Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth [1905]) could always be counted on to produce a fine satire of the upper-class. The haughtiness and self-absorption of the club, that focuses too much on what is “right” and “proper”, means that the ladies lose sight of the very culture and intellectual endeavours they are supposed to be pursing. They are necessarily restricted by the very “fine” social parameters within which they operate, and the goal to pursue culture and serious literature, which does require a level of open-mindedness, sits at odds with the club’s inflexible and discriminatory practices. Xingu must be among Wharton’s best short stories, being both caustically amusing and delightfully sarcastic.

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Review: Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries by Martin Edwards (ed.)

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries [2015] – ★★★★1/2

This is a collection of short crime mysteries set around Christmas time. The fifteen stories from the Golden Age writers are cosy, atmospheric literary forays into all things unknown and mystifying that may be taking place during the holiday season. There are stories here from such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ethel Lina White, Edmund Crispin, etc., and involve such scenarios as (i) Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson chasing a goose both literally and metaphorically to solve a theft of a precious stone; (ii) an investigation ongoing into a cold-blooded murder of a medical officer at a children’s party in an orphanage; and (iii) a necklace of pearls disappearing during a Christmas family gathering at a country house in Essex. Below, I am highlighting five short stories from the book that appealed to me the most.

Waxworks [1930] by Ethel Lina White – ★★★★★

This genuinely scary short story is by the author behind The Wheel Spins [1936] and Some Must Watch [1933], or their better known film equivalents The Lady Vanishes [1938] and The Spiral Staircase [1946]. The heroine of this story is Sonia Fraser, a new reporter for the popular Oldhampton Gazette who, come Christmas, decides to spend a night at the town’s wax museum. This particular wax collection has already gained a grim reputation because of a number of mysterious deaths that happened there at night and brave Sonia decides to test the unlikely hypothesis of some supernatural force operating. Well-written and suspenseful, Waxworks is definitely one of the highlights of this anthology.

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Mini-Review: The Penguin Book of Oulipo by Philip Terry (ed.)

The Penguin Book of Oulipo [2019] – ★★★★

This book is a very good compilation of Oulipo writings from all major writers, including from Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature) and denotes a group, founded in 1960 in France, that adopts a style of writing using “constrained” writing techniques. The goal is to experiment with “new structures and patters” in writing to stretch the possibilities of literature. Thus, the book contains all kinds of linguistic conundrums, narrative riddles, experimental poetry and comics, as well as narratives which experiment with word-play, anagrams, palindromes, repetitive forms and homophonic translations. There are examples of “constrained” or “seemingly nonsensical” writing from such authors as Homer, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges and Francois Rabelais.

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Review: Miraculous Mysteries by Martin Edwards (ed.)

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes [2017] –★★★★1/2

This is a fabulous collection of short murder mysteries (sixteen in total) that concern the so-called “impossible crime” scenario, where, seemingly, a murder could not have taken place or a murderer could not have possibly escaped after the commission of their crime (“locked-room” mysteries). I first saw the book reviewed at FictionFan’s Book Reviews and was immediately intrigued. Most of the stories concern the situation of “appearances deceiving” and come from various authors, from Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton to Margery Allingham and Sax Rohmer. In this book, there are such situations as (i) a confused policeman is not believed when he tells his tale of one gruesome murder scene he witnessed at one mysterious house no 13 – only, as it happens, there is no such house in existence; (ii) a night guard gets murdered in a museum room to which there is absolutely no access at night for anyone; and (iii) one invisible force striking people with an ornamented dagger. In this short review, I will highlight only three of these sixteen stories (these three are not necessarily the best or the most memorable ones, but simply the ones I chose for review).

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Recent Reading: Short Stories & Novellas

The Duel [1891] by Anton Chekhov – ★★★★★

This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.

Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.

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Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).

I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ★★★★

This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen [1918]) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread [1918] relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov [1879], here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774] by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas [1905] by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].

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Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Book Cover The Legend of Sleepy Hollow [1820] – ★★★★★

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story by American author Washington Irving. Drawing inspiration from folklore that dates back to the Middle Ages and which concerns the sightings of the Headless Horseman, Irving wrote a haunting tale of one strange village, ghostly apparitions and unrequited love. At the centre of this tale is Ichabod Crane, an odd and superstitious young man who teaches at a local school in one Dutch settlement in New York State. When he sets his eyes on a local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a rich local farmer, he does not even imagine yet the competition he has yet to overcome to claim her hand, the competition that stems especially from Katrina’s suitor Brom Van Brunt. Nor does our young hero imagines the extent of the horror that can be experienced by one who is actually confronting the central figure of many horror stories told by a cosy fireplace. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a very memorable short story, largely because of its haunting atmosphere and the early romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” [1774]) that Irving injects into the story to make it more compelling.  Continue reading “Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson”

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper Book CoverThe Yellow Wallpaper [1892] – ★★★★   

Yesterday was the International Women’s Day – 8 March 2019, and although I am a bit late, I thought I would still review one of the stories from the feminist literature. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about the narrator’s path towards madness. The narrator is a woman who has recently given birth and is advised by her husband John, a physician, to have more rest and to stop writing in her diary. The narrator, however, loves to write and is very imaginative. On the top floor of their rented cottage, she finds a room which was once a nursery. There, one presence does not let her enjoy her stay – the presence of the yellow wallpaper on the walls. She gradually becomes fixated and obsessed with it until she cannot distinguish reality and imagination. This story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has always been known for its eeriness, as well as for multiple interpretations that can be given to it. Whether the book is viewed as an unsettling horror story, a mental illness case study or a purely feminist text to highlight the plight of woman at the turn of the century, it still remains a compelling and thought-provoking read.  Continue reading “Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”