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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November 2020 Wrap-Up

Hell Screen [1918/1948] by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – ★★★★★

This is a short story by “the father of the Japanese short story” who is probably best known for such short stories as Rashomon [1915] and In a Grove [1922]. Said to be the reworking of the Uji Shūi Monogatari, Japanese tales written in the thirteenth century, Hell Screen tells the story of Yoshihide, an eccentric painter and allegedly a despicable human being, who resides at the court of one powerful Lord Horikawa. When the Lord requests Yoshihide to paint the picture of Hell, the artist takes this request too close to heart. Moreover, slowly, Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter becomes the centre of the newest rumour and intrigue. Akutagawa’s story may be short, but it also evokes the most powerful imagery. The author was a master of story-telling, and in this story we are presented with vivid descriptions that he also coupled with the peculiarly Japanese literary minimalism. The outcome is one disturbing, unforgettable story of obsession and damnation. I read Hell Screen thanks to the amazing post by Juan Gómez-Pintado titled “10 Extraordinary Tales of Terror“.

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September 2020 Wrap-Up

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] by Kathryn Harkup ★★★★★

When it comes to morbidly-curious books, it does not get better that this book. The author takes a deep look into all the poisons that Agatha Christie used in her books to “kill off” her “victims”, and the result is a read that both fascinates and informs – Full Review.

Doctor Glas [1905/1963] by Hjalmar Söderberg★★★★1/2

Truth is like the sun, its value depends wholly upon our being at a correct distance away from it” [Söderberg/Austen, 1905/1963: 138].

This little novel is a Swedish classic written in a diary form from the perspective of one dutiful doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas. He is a rather lonely and introverted individual who is used to handle expertly delicate matters of city inhabitants. That is, until he meets the charming wife of one “repulsive” priest Rev. Gregorius. As he gets entangled in the affairs of this couple, the doctor also starts rethinking his stance on life and his thoughts turn darker. Soon, torn between his medical ethics and objective morality on the one hand, and his rising sense of injustice and romantic emotions on the other, Doctor Glas is quite ready to commit the unthinkable. Deemed highly controversial upon its release in 1905, this tale of obsession, suppressed emotions, sexual frustration and jealousy is now rightly considered to be a national classic. Existential angst and hidden psychological torments mingle ominously within the pages, with the author making a sober, but surprisingly potent statement on the power of the unconscious in human actions and condition.

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Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

A15Zne-lCL Melmoth [2018] – ★★1/2 

First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016], its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility. Continue reading “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry”

Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked

I think it is the perfect time in the year to get cosy in a warm place with one’s preferred hot beverage and read a novel by Ira Levin (1929-2007), an American master of psychological suspense, who was capable of expertly evoking the horror out of the mundane and everyday situations, providing thrills and surprises no one expects. I have always been a fan of his books, which also translate marvellously onto the screen (for example, see Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby [1968] or Forbes’ film The Stepford Wives [1975]). Below are Levin’s novels in the order of my enjoyment of them (meaning that the ranking is not based on any objective criteria, but on my own perception of their merit).

Rosemary's Baby Book CoverI. Rosemary’s Baby [1967]

This is my favourite novel of Ira Levin. It is masterfully suspenseful and completely immersive. In this story, Rosemary Woodhouse is a happily married woman living in New York City with her husband Guy, who is an aspiring actor. Upon moving into a prestigious apartment block Bramford, the couple makes friends with their neighbours next door Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly couple. Soon after, Rosemary notices strange, overly-friendly behaviour of their neighbours, and Guy’s demeanour also changes. When Rosemary’s becomes pregnant with her first child, her suspicions escalate also because of her very unusual pregnancy; but are her suspicions simply the result of her active imagination or stem from some fact she simply finds hard to accept?  Continue reading “Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked”

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”

The Pumpkin Spice Latte Book Tag

I spotted this tag on Katie Jane Gallagher and Strangely Pop Cultured, and decided to try it because I just could not resist doing an autumn-themed book tag.

Osceola the Seminole Book CoverI. Pumpkin Spice Latte: A Book That Everyone Criticises But Is Actually Delicious:

Osceola, the Seminole by Mayne Reid.

This is a book that some say is only “for children” and “cannot be compared to the works of Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson”. Well, I have another opinion. This book is THE book of my childhood, alongside other books by Mayne Reid, such as The Quadroon [1856] and The Scalp Hunters [1851]. Osceola, the Seminole has a great sense of adventure and induces warm feelings of friendship and romance. If you liked Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf [1903], then you should also check out The Boy Tar [1859] by Mayne Reid.  Continue reading “The Pumpkin Spice Latte Book Tag”

Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

The Night of the Hunter Book CoverThe Night of the Hunter [1953] – ★★★★★

The Night of the Hunter is best known as a film of 1955 by Charles Laughton, but it was first a great book by Davis Grubb, who based his story on a true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a deranged psychopath who preyed on and killed lonely widows in the late 1920s. In the book by Davis Grubb, Willa Harper is a recently widowed mother of two whose husband, Ben Harper, has recently been convicted and executed for killing two men in armed robbery. After the execution, Willa and her two children, John and Pearl, are the centre of sympathy in their community until their “salvation” arrives in the form of Harry Powell or “Preacher”. Preacher knows that Ben Harper disclosed to his children before his execution the location of ten thousand dollars he gained through robbery, and Preacher will use any means – kindness or more disturbing pressure to discover the location of the money. It is safe to say now that The Night of the Hunter was unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Davis Grubb’s book a “lost masterpiece”, and there is truth in that. The Night of the Hunter is a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank in West Virginia. The novel is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.  Continue reading “Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb”

Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Decagon House Murders Cover The Decagon House Murders [1987/2015]★★1/2

This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939], The Decagon House Murders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming. 

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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. This will also be the first post towards the Colour Coded Reading Challenge (Colour Yellow (I hope short stories count!)), and I am reviewing the book edited by Dale M. Bauer. 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”

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw book cover The Turn of the Screw [1898] – ★★★★

<<This review will contain spoilers>>  

Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream?” [James, Ed. 2004: 33].  

This is a horror novella penned by James in 1898 at the invitation of Robert J. Collier for his magazine. First published as a series, it tells of a hired governess who comes to Bly, a country estate in Essex, to supervise two children, Miles and Flora. The children are orphans under the responsibility of their uncle who, in turn, does not have much time to spend with them and resides in London. The young governess willingly assumes her responsibilities, being totally delighted to be in charge of two beautiful, lovely and well-behaved children in such grand estate. However, Bly soon opens its horrors to the governess and she becomes aware that there are at least two ghosts in the house that haunt the children. The Turn of the Screw is now infamous for its multiple story interpretations and all kinds of meanings that can be read into the text. Nevertheless, whether one reads the story as a straightforward ghost tale or as a more complex psychological study of one nanny losing her mind, it is still a scary and intriguing read, which leaves much to think about and discuss upon finishing.  Continue reading “Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James”