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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

permanentBabette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Russell Banks’ new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family, is one of the best books I have read recently. The characters and the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves entangled continue to simmer in my mind.

Intentional or not, as a reader, I noticed the theme of death emerge as I read this collection of short stories. That being said, I must report that reading this collection of stories is not depressing, but rather a thought-provoking experience. Whether we like to acknowledge this or not, death is a permanent member of every family. Death reveals itself in an array of forms: death of a person or animal, death of a relationship, an image, a dream, a fabricated life, and so on.

Banks’ writing engages the reader swiftly into the lives of the characters presented in each of the stories who find themselves in a variety of perplexing situations.

Here is a sample of some of the situations… In Former Marine, adult siblings realize their father has committed an outrageous crime and ask themselves, “Can this be my dad?” The story Blue presents a woman alone and inadvertently locked overnight in automobile sales lot with a ferocious pit bull dog… is she a criminal or victim, how will this situation end? Top Dog explores the effects of success bestowed on one member of a group and the repercussions to the dynamics of their longstanding friendship.

The twelve stories in this collection encompass a diverse selection of characters from a cross-section of society. A Permanent Member of the Family is a satisfying read. Be sure to add it to your reading list.

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

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watchBarry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.

Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.

Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.

The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.

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hawkeyeWhile watching the Avengers movie in the theater (I admit, twice), I was intrigued by the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Not having much knowledge of the Avengers outside of Iron Man and Thor, I found it interesting that there were members of the team who did not possess any superpowers or special flying suits. Experience and training will only get you so far when facing a massive army of technologically superior aliens from another dimension. Hulk may smash, but normal humans should be running in the other direction while screaming.

As expected, when a movie piques the public’s interest in specific characters from a comic universe, new material often follows. I picked up a copy of the first volume of the new Hawkeye graphic novel series, titled Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. The series covers Hawkeye’s life away from the Avengers, where he lives quietly as Clint Barton in a rather crummy apartment building. He is assisted in many of his exploits by Kate Bishop, who is a member of the Young Avengers, and had previously stepped in for Clint when he took some time off from the Avengers. She is an equal, if not better, bowman than Clint.

Unlike other human superheroes like Batman or Iron Man, Hawkeye isn’t angsty, and there is a lot of humor injected into his interactions, especially with Kate. He fights mainly with his bow and an array of sometimes ridiculous specialty arrows, a method which is used smartly against him by the authors in a humorous segment where he keeps firing random arrows with somewhat unbelievable abilities. He tries to live as normally as possible, enjoying rooftop BBQs with his neighbors, buying a used sports car, and practicing his archery, but generally finds ways to get himself in trouble much as he might try to avoid it. It seems once you are identified as a superhero, groups of ninjas can’t help but attack you.

This volume is a quick but fun read. Recommended for fans of the Marvel Universe and anyone who is tired of having perpetually disagreeable and tormented superheroes.

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The only real breakout of Peter S. Beagle’s long career came 30 years ago, when he adapted his own 1968 fantasy novel The Last Unicorn into the screen play for an animated film. The 1982 film wasn’t nearly as good as the book, but it wasn’t terrible and did fairly well. The somewhat cruel irony was that it led Beagle into a couple of decades where he focused on screenwriting without vast success and even had to sue the producers of The Last Unicorn to get his contracted share of profits. He left the fantasy genre just as writers like Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, and Robert Jordan—writers whom in my opinion he surpasses—began to find popularity and strong sales. His early works, books like A Fine and Private Place and The Innkeeper’s Song, are both lovely and innovative and I still heartily recommend them.

In the last decade, Beagle has returned to fantasy writing, this time focusing on writing short stories and editing anthologies. His writing hasn’t lost a step. He has true gifts as a stylist that will give his work lasting value. Because of his elegant way with language, he makes a great gateway into the fantasy genre for readers who have previously focused on “literary” fiction. He’s both lyrical and innovative, and rather than follow the trends in the fantasy marketplace, he often battles against them.

We Never Talk about My Brother, a collection of nine varied stories, is a fine entry point to Beagle’s work. My favorites included the title piece, which is a retelling of the bible’s Jacob and Esau story in which the Esau character is a newscaster who uses his powers as an angel of death to create the stories that have made him famous. Ultimately his country brother, who has never tapped his opposing gifts, forces a confrontation. “King Pelles the Sure” is a powerful little anti-war story in which the king of a tiny but prosperous country foolishly thinks that his nation could also find glory in war. “Spook” pits man against ghost in a duel for rights to inhabit a house (and possibly to the man’s girlfriend). The twist is that the duel is fought (hilariously) with bad poetry. “By Moonlight” brings an English highwayman by circumstance (or is it?) to the fireside of a former cleric who has spent his life trying to regain access to the faerie court. Your mileage might vary: none of these stories is weak and each utilizes a different setting than the others.  I hope this book will prove a happy gateway to all things Beagle. Readers won’t regret the time invested.

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This week’s posts all have some element of the supernatural that make the reader feel increasingly ill at ease and encourage one to keep checking behind the curtains and making sure the windows are actually locked—just the sort of titles to read on a rainy night in October, when the dark comes early and the wind is in the trees.

I suspect that for many of us, our first encounter with tales of the supernatural came through short story collections, perhaps in school or taken from a shelf in the library. I remember coming across this collection of superbly eerie fiction for young readers in a house that my grandparents rented for vacation down in Tall Timbers, Maryland. The house was surrounded by towering pines on the Potomac River, and as I recall in my mind, it was darkly paneled and made an excellent spot to read spooky stories.

Here, Hitchcock has collected some fun tales to introduce a younger reader to the delightful pleasures of scary stories. There are two classic thrilling tales—Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” and Mark Twain’s “The Treasure in the Cave” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). But even better in some ways are the other stories featuring lost treasure (“The Forgotten Island”), vengeful spirits (“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”), and playful ghosts (“Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons”). Except for the Sherlock Holmes piece, all the stories feature young boys and girls as the protagonists, and the settings range from small towns that all seem to have a haunted house nearby to a decidedly eerie summer spot in Maine.

None of the tales is overly scary, and some would be considered pretty mild by today’s standards, but for a younger reader, these stories might be just the thing to read under the bedcovers on a cool fall night.

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Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the history of a fictional lost Vermeer painting back in time to the moment of its creation through a collection of eight short stories that come together to form a cohesive novel.  Each story can be read and appreciated on its own, but when taken all together, they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

The story opens as a new art teacher at a private school is invited to the home of a  reclusive colleague.  This colleague, Cornelius Engelbrecht, shows him the painting, in the desperate hope of finding a kindred spirit who can appreciate the painting and recognize its true origin.  But when asked why he has not made the painting known to the world, we quickly find out that Cornelius is paralyzed by the truth of how his father, a German soldier in World War II, came to own it.  If he admits to the world that it is a Vermeer and attempts to auction it or donate it to a museum, questions of provenance will no doubt be raised, and the truth of his father’s role in the German occupation of the Netherlands will also become public knowledge. Tragically, the painting and Cornelius’ enjoyment of it have been tainted irreparably by his father’s crimes.

 The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century’s supreme cruelty.”

The story then moves further back in time to its previous owners: a Jewish family living in Amsterdam during World War II, a Dutch merchant at the turn of the century, a farmer’s wife, a student, and, finally, the Girl herself – the inspiration for the painting.

The author lovingly describes the painting in such detail that you almost forget it is a fictional painting, invented by the writer. You almost begin to believe yourself that this story could be about a lost Vermeer. Each character sees something different in the painting, be it potential justification and vindication for a life poorly spent, a kindred spirit, a remembrance of first love, or unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and each focuses their devotion on a different aspect, whether it’s the subject matter, the light, the setting, or the painter’s skill. At the same time, the stories are all connected by a collective affection, even adoration, for the painting.

As a reader, you begin each story knowing ultimately how it will end, but even knowing this, it is a testament to the author’s skill that you still feel compelled to read on to learn how that person obtained the painting.  Through the vehicle of the painting’s mysterious history, Vreeland explores the small, but poignantly significant moments in people’s lives.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a delicate, beautifully written novel that is also available as an audiobook and as a 2003 Hallmark movie starring Glenn Close, entitled Brush With Fate.

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I started reading the title story in Dan Chaon’s dark and mesmerizing collection, Stay Awake, before going to sleep. I thought it was an interesting little story about a deformed baby with two heads. The parents had decided not to name each head, but only the “host” one, the one that might survive the inevitable and extremely risky surgery. The surgery would bring an end to whatever consciousness was in the “parasitic” head, which was capable of blinking and smiling and probably not much else, and may in fact kill Rosalie, the head that was more alert. I was tired and, frankly, looking forward to finishing the story and putting the book aside so I could sleep. When I got to the end of the story, and, with a jolt, understood what happened, I could not sleep. As befitted the title, I lay there awake, contemplating consciousness, thought, emotion, self, life — what exactly is this stuff that goes on inside a person’s brain?

Probably my favorite story is “Slowly We Open Our Eyes.” Two brothers are driving cross-country in the semi truck one of the brothers drives for a living. They think they have hit a deer, though the drugs and peppermint schnapps they’ve consumed may have twisted their perceptions.  In “I Wake Up,” an older sister — at least she says she’s his older sister — contacts her younger brother after being separated for years when their mother drowns two of their other siblings.  In “St. Dismas,” a young man kidnaps the son of his meth-addicted girlfriend and takes him on a cross-country trip, breaking and entering into people’s houses. What is he to do with the boy? He hadn’t thought the whole thing through. When he gets to his own isolated boyhood home in the country, ripe with memories, he makes a decision.  In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” a young man tries to get through life after his parents leave him a suicide note on the front door of the house in which he thought they were a happy family. The living space in the house narrows bit by bit as memories and mementos he can’t face force him to shut himself into a smaller and smaller space.  In the story most akin to a ghost story — “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” — three sisters contemplate how their lives would be different if their Daddy had succeeded in killing them twenty years earlier.

The stories in this collection could be called horror stories, though there are no monsters, no aliens, no scary chases. There are, perhaps, some ghosts. The real terror comes from losing control of your mind, of not quite grasping what is going on around you. The horror comes from the inside:  confused states stemming from grief, separation, guilt. These twelve stories are mostly inner dialogues — somber, sometimes philosophical narrations by family members who have been through hell at the hands of someone who should have loved them. They start out gently, with little hints dropped throughout the narration that something just isn’t quite right and, by the end of the story, the reader realizes how utterly horrible the protagonist’s circumstances have been. Chaon powerfully describes the warped senses and circumstances of his characters, subtly weaving horror into what at first appear to be commonplace situations.

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Mandy of Circulation Services provides today’s review.

I enjoy the work of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, particularly his 1984 book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  This is not your average children’s picture book; instead, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a series of 14 exquisitely detailed, black and white illustrations, each accompanied by an enigmatic title and caption. Alternately whimsical and haunting, the illustrations in this book inspired me (and countless other readers) to invent stories to explain what was going on in the pictures.  Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit a cherished part of my childhood by reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, an illustrated short story collection in which 14 authors, including Stephen King and his wife Tabitha King, Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, and Cory Doctorow, have contributed stories inspired by the illustrations in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

All of the stories are original to the collection with the exception of Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street,” which originally appeared in his 1993 book Nightmares & Dreamscapes.  The stories themselves are not linked by any recurring characters or situations, so readers shouldn’t feel that the stories need to be read in any specific order.  Like Van Allsburg’s illustrations, each story has its own unique tone and style; some are dark, like Jules Feiffer’s “Uninvited Guests,” while others, such as Louis Sachar’s “Captain Tory,” are sweet and poignant.

One of my favorite stories in the collection was M.T. Anderson’s “Just Desert,” the tale of a boy named Alex who, on the eve of his 10th birthday, discovers that nothing in his world is as it appears. I felt the authors did a fine job of capturing the surreal atmosphere found in Van Allsburg’s illustrations.  Lemony Snicket’s introduction is also a real hoot.  Readers who are unfamiliar with The Mysteries of Harris Burdick will find Van Allsburg’s introduction to the 1984 book as well as the illustrations and captions in this collection.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a good, quick read that should appeal to young adult (and, for that matter, adult) readers who grew up intrigued by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

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Check the WRL catalog for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

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“The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.”

Three’s the charm for the novella-length short stories in this young adult collection, centered around three kisses. Some kisses are promises and some are threats; some could make you lose your soul, and others might help you get it back again.

In “Goblin Fruit,” the handsome new boy in school has eyes only for Kizzy, which would be a good thing, if he were human. (Kizzy ought to know better: her grandmother gave her a stiletto for occasions just like this.) A contemporary take on Christina Rossetti’s creepy poem, “Goblin Market,” which you certainly don’t need to know to enjoy it, this story ends in an unsettling place… or makes you want to start writing the next chapter.

“Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” set in India at the height of the British empire, was my favorite of the three stories. An elderly woman, “with a stare that could shoot laughter from the air like game birds,” serves as an ambassador to hell, taking tea with demons to ransom souls back to the living. (I notice that most summaries of this story focus on the beautiful young girl, cursed with silence lest she kill anyone who hears her voice, and the young man who falls in love with her. But young couples in love always get the headlines. Old ladies who take tea in hell: that’s what I’m talking about.)

In “Hatchling,” a brown-eyed girl wakes up with one blue eye and her mother freaks. Taylor unfurls the story of the mother’s past in a fantastically-detailed mountain eyrie court, ruled by a heartless queen who keeps children as pets and feeds her cats to bridge trolls. This involving story is something like watching Narnia’s White Witch get a second chance.

Taylor’s prose is lushly descriptive, but among her poetic similes are also short, pointed, painful sentences, like thorns among roses. She’s a fantastic storyteller. Readers of folk and fairy tales will recognize elements of Orpheus, Sleeping Beauty, Andersen’s Little Mermaid and other motifs. Whether it’s the sudden popularity of Team Werewolf or some other cyclical influence, we seem to be in another renaissance of fairy-tale derived stories, and these are standouts. They incline to the darker side, though, full of blood and menace, and will appeal to older teens. Each of the stories is introduced by a wordless mini-graphic-novel by illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, setting the scene in fine gothic style.

Check the WRL catalog for Lips Touch: Three Times.

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Connie offers another great title for Thursday.

The author, Siobhan Fallon, started writing this interconnected group of eight short stories while living at Fort Hood, Texas, with her husband, who was between deployments to the Middle East. The characters and setting were so real and vivid that the book could have been nonfiction. If you haven’t had much exposure to military life, you will come away with a much better  understanding of the difficulties and peculiarities of this insular way of life.

I loved this book, but many of the stories were heartbreaking to read. Most of the stories take place in Texas, where the entrance sign to the 340 square mile military base says, “Welcome to the Great Place, Fort Hood”. The stories here deal with the stress on the relationships between the deployed soldiers and their loved ones, where separations can last up to a year at a time. All the stories were told from the point of view of a male soldier or their loved one. My favorite story was “Remission” about a woman and her family dealing with her breast cancer. It was such a slice of family life in all it’s messy glory, and I couldn’t help but cry just reading it. Some are told from the point of view of the soldier in Iraq or having just returned home. Many of the characters’ stories intersect or overlap at different points.

You come away from reading these stories feeling like you visited this place and some of the people you’ve met you liked and a few you didn’t. But you also feel as if you have a greater understanding of some of the situations and pressures each character faced.  You have a sense of empathy for how each person has learned to deal with the life they are living. This book reminded me that we often think we know what someone’s life is like, but there is always so much more going on under the surface. And, I was impressed with the way Fallon captured a realistic view of both the effects of deployments on military families and the soldier’s wartime experiences. O country will be dealing with both of these long after our troops return home. As the base exit sign stated, “You’ve Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming”.

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The power of music to shape and influence people’s lives is the central theme of the five stories in Nocturnes, the first short story collection from Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day.

I enjoy Ishiguro’s work, particularly his 2001 novel When We Were Orphans, and I was interested in seeing how his short stories would compare to his novels. While some stories in the collection are stronger than others, the quality of the writing kept me reading, even when Ishiguro threw in some less than convincing plot twists.

My favorite selection in the collection is “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which tells the story of a man who learns, through a series of increasingly disconcerting events, that his highly refined taste in music is the only quality his two closest friends like about him. In the story, Ray, an English teacher, returns to England to visit Emily and Charlie, a married couple who have known Ray since their days at university. It soon becomes clear that Charlie and Emily are having marital problems, and Ray’s attempts to help his longtime friends reveal some uncomfortable truths about Emily and Charlie’s feelings toward Ray. It’s a testament to Ishiguro’s skill as a writer that the portrait he creates of the central characters is so convincing that upon finishing the story, I felt like I had known them for years.

The one false note (pardon the pun) Ishiguro strikes comes with the story “Nocturne.” This story is a disappointment because he takes an intriguing premise—a talented jazz musician undergoes radical plastic surgery in the hopes that an “improved” appearance will transform his career— and undermines it with an over-the-top climax whose slapstick humor borders on the absurd.

Overall, I enjoyed Nocturnes and would recommend it to readers who enjoy short stories as well as fans of Ishiguro’s novels.

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It’s not easy for an adult to remember what it’s like to be a child, to experience all of the wonders of the world afresh, to make new discoveries, whether they be exciting or terrifying, for the first time. That’s what I love about Ellen Klages’s story collection, Portable Childhoods. She really captures the hopes and fears, the thrills and grave disappointments that happen as one comes of age.

The collection starts with “Basement Magic,” which retells the wicked stepmother/fairy godmother tale in a modern setting, with an ex-beauty queen as the stepmother, a workaholic absentee father, and the family housekeeper as the fairy godmother. The little girl in the story learns conjure magic to keep her nasty stepmother away, but ultimately discovers that magic has a cost.

In “Intelligent Design,” we meet God as a boy, learning how to make stars and bugs at his grandmother’s knee. “The Green Glass Sea” turns the horrors of an atomic test into a desert sea of green glass through a child’s eye. In “Flying over Water,” a neglected child falls too heavily for the enchantments of the sea.

A few of the stories are not about children, but still have such a sense of discovery that they blend well into the collection. In the suspenseful “Time Gypsy,” a young lesbian physicist receives an amazing chance to travel in time and meet her idol, another young woman scientist who disappeared just before she was to announce a major breakthrough.

The collection finishes with three stories that pack an emotional punch. “Guys Day Out” portrays a father’s love for his Down Syndrome son, particularly on the fishing trips that they share over a lifetime. The title story features 10 vignettes of a mother watching her daughter grow up. For book lovers, the best is saved for last: “In the House of the Seven Librarians” transports a sleeping beauty tale to a Carnegie Library, where seven librarians raise a girl in a library caught in the mists of time.

All in all, this is one of the most enjoyable story collections I’ve ever read, blending reality with quiet little touches of fantasy that capture a child’s experience perfectly.

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Fred Chappell is a wonderful storyteller whose novels of life in the North Carolina Piedmont can elicit both laughter and tears, often in the same paragraph. I have been rereading some of my favorite Chappell books and in doing so am reminded of why I love them so.

Farewell I’m Bound to Leave You is wonderful place for readers new to Chappell to start. Jess Kirkman and his father sit in the living room of their house, while in the back bedroom, Jess’s grandmother is dying, attended by her daughter, Jess’s mother. The book that follows is a series of short, interconnected pieces that all deal with the stories of women whose lives have touched and illuminated the lives of the Kirkmans.

Jess and his father relive these stories, which often have at their center Jess’s grandmother, whose death will leave an unbearable gap in the family’s lives. Chappell’s writing style is lyrical, and there is a thread of things outside reality that weaves through the stories. He eloquently captures the speech patterns of rural North Carolina, and his grasp of myth and legend make his characters come alive for the reader. Chappell reminds us of the importance of story to our lives in a thoughtful and moving way.

For more Southern authors and the stories they tell, be sure to see our list of Great Southern Fiction

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This is the first work by Jeffrey Archer that I’ve read, and I was delighted with the variety of stories in this collection, several of which are based on true incidents.

“Stuck on You” launches first. This is one of those whodunnit mysteries that I enjoy reading.  You just know there’s a detail you’ve missed that would help you solve the case before the author brings it to a close.  Jeremy has been persuaded to steal an engagement ring for the woman he loves, Arabella. But when the security officers search Jeremy they can’t find the ring.  How did he get away with it?  Archer doesn’t disappoint in revealing a clue that seemed obvious once it’s revealed.

Next is “The Queen’s Birthday Telegraph.” This story is less a mystery than what appears to be a bureaucratic mishap.   Albert’s wife, Betty, didn’t receive a telegraph from the Queen when she turned 100.  When Albert investigates he learns a surprising fact about his wife that makes him smile.

All the stories continue in that vein — brief glimpses of life from different people with different backgrounds and circumstances.  Some endings have surprising hooks at the end, others are more predictable.  The overall feel is more cozy than anything stressful or hard-boiled.  It made for a delightful break.

I started off listening to this on audiobook and loved hearing Gerard Doyle’s voice.  In most cases I was able to complete a whole story on the way to or from work.  That was great — I didn’t have to sit in the driveway and wait for the story to come to a good stopping point!

Check the WRL catalog for And Thereby Hangs a Tale in print or in audio

 

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The aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, is the thread that connects the six short stories in Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 2002 collection after the quake*. While none of the stories are set in Kobe, all of the characters are affected by the catastrophe, either directly or indirectly.

The stories in after the quake are “ufo in kushiro” ; “landscape with flatiron” ; “all god’s children can dance” ; “thailand” ; “super-frog saves tokyo” ; and “honey pie.” With the exception of “super-frog saves tokyo,” the stories contain few of the surreal elements that characterize most of Murakami’s novels and short stories. All of the stories are written in a thoughtful and engaging manner, but my favorite stories are “thailand” and “honey pie.”

In “thailand,” Satsuki, a pathologist whose research involves the thyroidal immune system, finds more than rest and relaxation on a vacation to Thailand. During the course of her trip, a series of events, including an encounter with a woman who predicts people’s dreams, prompts her to make peace with her past and accept her mortality as an inevitable part of the cycle of life. The past Satsuki confronts involves a doomed relationship with a man who lives in Kobe and may be a casualty of the earthquake.

In “honey pie,” a child’s frightened reaction to news coverage of the earthquake provides the framework for exploring the long and complicated history of college friends Junpei, Takatsuki and Sayoko. Close throughout college, their friendship is tested when Takatsuki and Sayoko fall in love and later marry. The three remain close as they pursue their careers– Junpei becomes a short-story writer, Takatsuki joins a newspaper as a reporter,  Sayoko enters academia– and in time Junpei becomes a surrogate uncle to Takatsuki and Sayoko’s daughter Sala (whom Junpei named). What appeared to be a perfect marriage to Junpei eventually ends in divorce, but he remains close to both Takatsuki and Sayoko. When Sala experiences nightmares triggered by coverage of the earthquake, Junpei is asked to comfort her. Through the process of calming her fears, he begins to contemplate his own response to the earthquake, and realizes it is time for him to acknowledge his feelings for Sayoko.

What I found the most compelling about the stories in after the quake was the way  in which Murakami was able to convey the far-reaching effects of the earthquake without being heavy-handed or exploiting the tragedy. after the quake is a haunting and beautifully crafted collection that should appeal to readers of short stories and established Murakami fans.

(*The title of Murakami’s collection, as well as the titles of the stories, are written in lower case. I decided to keep the titles stylized as published.)

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Without meaning to, I seem to have found a great deal of my recent reading taking place in a single setting, much like several of my recent posts.  This time around I wound up in Japan, reading about very different times and across a spectrum of behaviors.  To finish this week before Christmas on a light note, I’d like to share with you a collection of folk tales from 18th century Japan.

Ooka Tadasuke was a real magistrate, well respected for being incorruptible and for striving for justice despite the wealth and status of the parties before him.  A body of folktales grew up around his rulings, so it is difficult to tell which, if any, are real stories that have been enshrined.  One, “The Case of the Bound Jizo or Suspect Statue”, has what I think is the best claim.  In it, Ooka arrests a statue for not properly guarding a man’s property, and during the trial arrives at the truth in a simple way.  Since the statue still stands and is still visited for justice, maybe it is a relic of Ooka’s wisdom.

This collection of 17 tales all illustrate Ooka’s cleverness at using the fine points of human psychology to trick tricksters and reward the honest in his role as judge.  But he also applies his thoughtful nature to problems that present themselves in daily life: cruel merchants, a precocious grandchild, ambitious nobles, and an impulsive ruler.  In each, Ooka’s blend of quick thinking and precise wording combines with his desire to overlook the letter of the law in search of its spirit.

I’m also interested in folktales from around the world, and Ooka’s cases often have the same themes as stories about magistrates, tribal chiefs, rabbis, and respected elders who must decide on disputes between members of their communities.  Some, especially the stories of the Mullah Nasruddin, can depict the judge as either wise or foolish, but in all cases the stories convey both cultural truths and entertainment.  So why are they always shelved in the children’s area?

Anyway, the holiday season is a perfect one for sharing stories, whether your own or stories you’ve heard from others.  Give it a try!

Check the WRL catalog for Ooka the Wise

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I’m departing from the usual format of this blog, in that I’m going to talk about a single short story which isn’t even in the Williamsburg Regional Library’s collection.  Apologies in advance – anyone who wants to read “Hell Screen” is going to have to go to Shoreline Community College’s scanned file and read it online.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa is not well-known to most Western readers, although many would know two of his stories from film history.  He contributed the title Rashomon to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but the film has nothing to do with the original story.  For that, Kurosawa adopted themes from Akutagawa’s story “In the Grove“, which tells the tale of a crime from the viewpoints of 7 people.

“Hell Screen” shares little with Akutagawa’s stories “Rashomon” and “In the Grove” except the time period (ancient Japan).  The story is narrated by a nameless person – indeed, there are few clues as to the age or sex of the teller, although the critic who introduces the story in my edition says it is a young woman.  The teller served the Grand Lord Emperor Horikawa at court, and was witness to many of the events of the tale, but also reports hearsay about events out of her (his?) sight.  And what events they are – a mocked and feared artist, his beautiful daughter, and the Grand Lord tragically clash over ideas of duty and honor versus the boundaries of artistic genius.

Yoshihide is a brilliant artist whose paintings are reputed to have sinister supernatural capabilities.  His daughter serves in the Grand Lord’s household, and gossip has it that he is in love with her, although the Lord’s defenders (among them the teller) insist that his attentions to her are pure.  Nonetheless, when Yoshihide asks that she be released and returned to his household, the Lord reacts with anger.  Eventually, the Grand Lord commissions Yoshihide to paint a screen depicting the Buddhist underworld, a task that the painter takes to with relish.  Feeling the need to capture his vision with real models, he torments his apprentices and paints their reactions.  But when he needs a model for the central image of the screen, the Grand Lord indulges his horrible idea to finalize his masterpiece.

Akutagawa’s story suggested to me images from Albrecht Durer and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement filtered through Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hopfrog“.  (It turns out that Akutagawa studied Poe, which may have influenced parts of the story.)  Akutagawa uses the story to probe the limits of the artist’s need to execute the image he holds in his mind, the cost to the artist, the purity society wants to see in its artists, and its disappointment in their human failings.  These were all personal issues to Akutagawa – in the years after he wrote “Hell Screen” he would suffer a mental breakdown and eventually commit suicide after recording the increasingly hellish interior world he lived in.  His body of work is still considered one of the finest in Japanese literature, and the Akutagawa Prize is the most prestigious in Japanese letters.

Although we don’t own any collections that include “Hell Screen”, you can check the WRL catalog for Exotic Japanese Stories, a collection of 16 Akutagawa tales.

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