Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s' cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s’ cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel by H.E. Bates ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004620-8. 95 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slender collection of short stories, published two years after H.E. Bates’ death in 1972, is something of a hodge-podge, no uniting theme present except that they were all written by a master observer of both nature and the human race.

A review snippet from the back cover sums up this writer’s style quite nicely: “All the clotted cream of a sensuous rusticity…” (Scotsman)

Yes, indeed.

Just the briefest of comments on the seven stories in this collection, because you need to encounter H.E. Bates at first hand for purest pleasure.

The Proposal

Professor Plumley is unmasked as the mysterious person leaving lavish offers of fruit on Miss Shuttleworth’s doorstep. Is this merely a way of ridding himself of excess garden produce, or is love about to bloom in two elderly hearts?

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel

Middle-aged siblings living together in the house willed to them by their parents find their staid life turned on end when one of them falls in love.

A Taste of Blood

Dhillon falls unaccountably afoul of a gang of violent bikers.

The Love Letters of Miss Maitland

Repressed Miss Maitland allows her imagination to supply her with a lover, whose reality is too readily accepted by her friends.

The Lap of Luxury

Roger Stiles, on a journey of post-war reminiscence in France, finds himself cut adrift in the summer countryside. The offer of a ride from a presumably widowed Frenchwoman leads to a long dream-time of love in a luxurious country château. How long could it last?

Loss of Pride

Rustic philosopher Uncle Silas relates the downfall of a bully.

The House by the River

Beware the real estate deal too good to be true; it may have some strange strings attached…

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mercy pity peace and love jon rumer goddenMercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.

My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.

I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)

The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.

Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.

  • Bengal River by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls…
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.

  • Monkey – by Jon Godden

Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Manby Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden

Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.

  • Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.

  • The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

  • Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice,
these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…

   … … …

  • The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.

  • The Carpet – by Jon Godden

The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.

  • Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

An orphan boy,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

  • Miss Passano – by Jon Godden

Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.

  • Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection

Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.

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ellison wonderland signet 1974 harlan ellison 001Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison ~ 1962. This edition: Signet, 1974. Paperback. 178 pages.

My rating: Collectively, I think maybe 7/10. The individual stories vary in their appeal. In general, I like the dark twisters better than the emotion-tugging ones. Perhaps I’ll stick some ratings on them below.

Tripping back in time to long ago teen reading days when I happily dabbled in science fiction, starting with Ray Bradbury’s fantastical Martian Chronicles – the entry level drug, as it were – and soon moving on to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and others of its ilk, and, finally, discovering the more than slightly twisted short stories of the ever-angry Harlan Ellison.

Rounding up potential reading for the Century of Books, I pulled this collection of early pulp shorts by Ellison from my son’s bookshelf. He (my son, not Ellison, of course) has taken over my collection of vintage sci-fi, and if I want to time travel the genre I need to make a special effort to go out to the cabin, stand on a rickety old kitchen chair and ascend to the top bunk bed (no ladder – my son and his friends being athletic and bounding types), and, kneeling gingerly amongst the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to that mostly uninhabited space, go through the book shelves stacked high with a varied collection of  (forgive the lazy stereotype) “guy books” – loads of falling-apart World’s Best Sci-Fi collections, most of Heinlein’s output, John Steinbeck, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, John Christopher, Bertrand R. Brinley, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton – you get the drift.

Leafing through the dusty Harlan Ellison paperbacks, I waffled between Shatterday, Stalking the Nightmare, Gentleman Junkie, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream… and then I settled on this one, as rather less strident than some of the others. The 1974 reissue also has the bonus of introductory commentary by the author to each of the sixteen stories, always a fascinating addition to such collections, adding context to these otherwise rather innocuous “pulp mag” shorts.

When Harlan Ellison is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad… well, you know the rest of that little nursery rhyme tag. A few of these stories are highly memorable; the rest, maybe not so much. But still something of a must-read collection for the vintage speculative fiction/sci-fi buff.

  • Introduction: The Man on the Mushroom – 1974 – Ellison describes the events surrounding the first publication of this collection in 1962, and the utter financial and emotional destitution attendant upon his migration from Chicago to Hollywood, California, and the exceedingly welcome publisher’s cheque which validated his writerly ambitions.
  • Commuter’s Problem – 1957 – “Thing” was all I could call it, and it had a million tentacles. An ordinary guy living in modest suburbia is vaguely troubled by the not-quite-normal functioning (including the weird garden plant referred to in the first-sentence quote) of the household next door. And then one day the absent-minded morning commute goes on a stop too far. Much too far…  Spoiler: Earth is just a suburb. Good for a chuckle: 7/10
  • Do-It-Yourself – 1961 – Madge retina-printed her identity on the receipt, fished in her apron for a coin, and came up with a thirty-center. It’s amazing what one can purchase by mail order. Like a no-fail, do-it-yourself murder kit. Watch out, loutish husband Carl. (But maybe Carl reads the same back-of-the-magazine ads himself…) Brilliant. This sort of thing is why I keep Harlan on the shelf: 10/10
  • The Silver Corridor – 1956 – “We can’t be responsible for death or disfigurement, you know,” reminded the duelsmaster. Two opinionated academics take their elemental disagreement with each other to the next level, in a literal battle of the minds. Cleverly imagined: 10/10
  • All the Sounds of Fear – 1962 – “Give me some light!” The ultimate Method Actor goes too far. Interesting concept: 5/10
  • Gnomebody – 1956 – Did you ever feel your nose running and you wanted to wipe it, but you couldn’t? A teenage social misfit meets his magical counterpart. Nice twist at ending which I totally didn’t see coming: 7/10
  • The Sky is Burning – 1958 – They came flaming down out of a lemon sky, and the first day, ten thousand died. Intergalactic lemmings, with a bleak message for Earth. Brrr: 7/10
  • Mealtime – 1958 – While the ship Circe burned its way like some eternal Roman Candle  through the surrounding dark of forever… Homo superior? The crew of a far-roving Catalog Ship mapping the planets of unknown stars gets an unnerving comeuppance. This little story has a sting in its tail, but it felt a bit awkward in execution: 5/10
  • The Very Last Day of a Good Woman –  1958 – Finally, he knew the world was going to end. Arthur Fulbright knows the future, and doesn’t want to die a virgin. Multiple things going on here, rather darkly. Kind of icky: 5/10
  • Battlefield – 1958 – The first needle of the “day” came over Copernicus Sector at 0545…and seven seconds. Earthly conflicts are now fought out on the moon, with clinical accuracy of elimination of opponents. The combatants commute to and fro, sharing the same shuttles and getting together to socialize in their downtime, for “peace on Earth” is well-maintained. An eerie tale, all too chillingly possible, one feels: 10/10
  • Deal From the Bottom – 1960 – There was really quite a simple reason for Maxim Hirt’s presence in the death cell. A condemned man sells his soul to the devil for a reprieve. Too bad Maxim has always been a bungler… Okay, I laughed: 7/10
  • The Wind Beyond the Mountains – 1958 – Wummel saw the shining thing come down. The crew of a planetary exploration mission need to find a justification to keep their jobs from being cut. Maybe a live specimen from a strange small planet will help? This one didn’t quite get off the ground, in my opinion, though it had its moments: 4/10
  • Back to the Drawing Boards – 1958 – Perhaps it was inevitable, and perhaps it was only a natural result of the twisted eugenics that produced Leon Packett. Robotics expert Packett is screwed over by his employers. Revenge is inevitable. Beware compound interest! 7/10
  • Nothing for My Noon Meal – 1958 –  There was a patch of Fluhs growing out beyond the spikes, and I tried to cultivate them, and bring them around, but somehow they weren’t drawing enough, and they died off before they could mature. Marooned on a small, barren planet, with his wife’s body entombed in their broken spaceship, a lone man is succoured by oxygen-producing native plants. A chance at escape presents itself; can he bring himself to leave this place he once called Hell? Awkwardly poignant: 4/10
  • Hadj – 1956 – It had taken almost a year to elect Herber. The Masters of the Universe show up and order an envoy from Earth, but at the end of the long journey to the home world, a humiliating slap-down awaits. A four-page snippet of a story, saved from readerly dismissal by being wryly funny: 6/10
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away – 1956 – Sometimes I wish I were a duck, mused Hobert Krouse. Trapped in a dismal job, in a perpetually rain-drenched city, Hobert occasionally intones the childhood incantation, with generally successful results. But then one day it is “the other day”… and Hobert finds himself in a bit of a situation. We leave him surreally floating: 5/10
  • In Lonely Lands – 1958 – Pederson knew night was falling over Sytris Major; blind, still he knew that the Martian night had arrived; the harp crickets had come out. Coming to Mars to live out his few remaining years, Pederson at last finds a kindred spirit who eases his troubled soul. Flirting with the stickily sentimental here, Harlan. Not one of my favourites of this collection; too gosh-darn poignantly sweet: 4/10

 

 

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just so stories rudyard kipling folio ed 001Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling ~ 1902. This edition: The Folio Society, 1991. Illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Having been familiar with the most popular of these stories since childhood – The Elephant’s Child standing out in my memory, for it was read aloud to me a great number of times; I can clearly hear in my head the words “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” deliciously rolled out in all their alliterative glory in my mother’s quietly precise voice – I of course acquired a volume to read to my own wee children.

And not just any old edition, but this deluxe Folio Society version, complete with the author’s original illustrations, chatty descriptions of the drawings, and abysmally cringe-inducing poems. And obviously unexpurgated, too, which I discovered as I read them aloud, requiring some think-fast editing to deal with little things such as this passage, from How the Leopard Got his Spots. Rolling along nicely, we all are, until we reach the last line in this passage, and oh, golly! – now how to slide through that one?! The clever reader-alouder  becomes adept at looking a little way ahead and editing on the fly after one or two experiences like this.

…Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

‘Hi! Hi!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘That’s a trick worth learning. Take a lesson by it, Leopard. You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle.’

‘Ho! Ho!’ said the Leopard. ‘Would it surprise you very much to know that you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals?’

‘Well, calling names won’t catch dinner,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice. He told me I ought to change; and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin I’m going to change that.’

‘What to?’ said the Leopard, tremendously excited.

‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’

So he changed his skin then and there, and the Leopard was more excited than ever; he had never seen a man change his skin before.

‘But what about me?’ he said, when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.

‘You take Baviaan’s advice too. He told you to go into spots.’

‘So I did,’ said the Leopard. ‘I went into other spots as fast as I could. I went into this spot with you, and a lot of good it has done me.’

‘Oh,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘Baviaan didn’t mean spots in South Africa. He meant spots on your skin.’

‘What’s the use of that?’ said the Leopard.

‘Think of Giraffe,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Or if you prefer stripes, think of Zebra. The find their spots and stripes give them perfect satisfaction.’

‘Umm,’ said the Leopard. ‘I wouldn’t look like Zebra—not for ever so.’

‘Well, make up your mind,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘because I’d hate to go hunting without you, but I must if you insist on looking like a sun-flower against a tarred fence.’

‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ’em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’

‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!’

Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard’s skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots—off five fat black finger-tips.

‘Now you are a beauty!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!’

‘But if I’m all this,’ said the Leopard, ‘why didn’t you go spotty too?’

‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian…

So racist bits aside – and there are a few here and there in many of the stories, in a very era-expected sort of way – these have become so much a part of our popular culture with their instantly recognizable tag lines that they are well worth passing along to children and grandchildren.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his "Best Beloved" first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his “Best Beloved” first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

The Just So stories were originally written for Kipling’s young daughter Josephine, who died of pneumonia at the tragically tender age of seven in 1899; several years later the stories, which had been published singly from 1897 onward, were assembled into this collection. They are written as scripted read-aloud narratives; one can hear an avuncular fatherly voice rolling them out; the repetition and slangy contractions are distinctive and memorable, though sometimes a bit hard to read out loud with a straight face and sober tone.

A few of the stories are over-long and rather hard going; this is a collection which requires some serious editing if being shared with a young audience, but it rewards the older reader’s full attention once the little ones have left the room, for its period atmosphere and the vision it gives of the time when the stories were written. Lift a sardonic eyebrow over the worst of the politically incorrect bits, but spare a thought too for the all-too-common sorrow of the bereaved parent; Kipling’s “O Best Beloved” small daughter is a ghostly presence throughout.

  • How the Whale got his Throat ~ Never swallow whole a ship-wrecked Mariner, for he may be a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.
  • How the Camel Got his Hump ~ An awful warning to the perpetually scornful, especially those who reside where magic-making Djinn reside. Your “Humph!” may turn into a Horrible Hump, claims our narrator.
  • How the Rhinoceros got his Skin ~ The tale of the cake-loving Parsee, who favours hat which reflects the rays of the sun in more-than-oriental-splendour, and his perfect revenge on the thieving rhinoceros. (One of our favourites.)
  • How the Leopard got his Spots ~ See the excerpt above. A rather glorious tale, but requiring of the parental edit here and there. And I must warn you that if you have the Kipling illustrated version, he comments regarding the illustration that “The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.” (!)
  • The Elephant’s Child ~ My childhood favourite, what with the elephant’s child getting his revenge on all of his spanking multi-species relatives. A slightly annoying repetition of ” ‘satiable curtiosity” (yes, the misspelling is deliberate) challenges the reader throughout, but as a treat one gets to roll out “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” just as many times.
  • The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo ~ Yellow-Dog Dingo is fated to chase Kangaroo, and Kangaroo had to run and run and run. Neither could stop, they simply “had to!” The moral: Those who wish to be really and truly popular and wonderfully run after may rue their desire.
  • The Beginning of the Armadilloes ~ This was one that was something of a miss. An Amazonian turtle and hedgehog confound a predacious Jaguar by morphing into armadilloes.
  • How the First Letter was Written ~ A Primitive father and daughter – very early Britons indeed – originate hieroglyphic writing, with hilariously confusing consequences.
  • How the Alphabet was Made ~ An extension of the previous story, with detailed descriptions of how the letters of the alphabet were made. Sad to say, perhaps, too long and descriptive. We all lost interest in this one, and as a read-aloud it was a dismal failure, clever illustrations to no avail.
  • The Crab that Played with the Sea ~ A crabby King Crab plays hob with sea levels to the great detriment of all seashore and ocean creatures. The Great Magician disciplines the Crab, and turns responsibility for the rise and fall over to the Moon. A rather good “origin tale”.
  • The Cat that Walked by Himself ~ Our absolute favourite. This was one I read out loud over and over and over. “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me…” Only to give in to the warmth of the fire and the bowl of milk from the Wife of his Enemy at the end, while still reserving his aloofness, at the cost of  eternal feuding with Man and Dog.
  • The Butterfly that Stamped ~ Written with an eye to the adult audience, Kipling spins a rather preachy homily about how to keep your wife under proper control, with the help of a handy Djinn.
  • The Tabu Tale ~ The father-daughter of First Letter and Alphabet returns with a moralistic lecture on the benefits of growing up, and related responsibilities.
One of the author's much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

One of the author’s much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

The illustrations in the Folio Edition of Just So Stories are a delightful addition, but the author’s poetry, of which the following is one of the less objectionable examples, not so much. Just couldn’t get through these with a straight face, and they engendered a certain amount of critical sneering, kiddies and grown-ups of this family alike.

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.

Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

We climb out of bed with a frouzly head
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;

And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know there is one for you)
When we get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

I get it as well as you-oo-oo—
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo—
We all get hump—
Cameelious hump—
Kiddies and grown-ups too!

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the silver thorn hugh walpoleThe Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories by Hugh Walpole ~ 1928. This edition: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.

A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success –  to go against it.

A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.

  • The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
  • The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
  • No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
  • Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
  • A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
  • Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
  • The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
  • Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
  • The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
  • Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
  • A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
  • The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
  • The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
  • The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
  • Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?

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And the last late reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the little bookroom eleanor farjeonThe Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon ~ 1955

This edition: New York Review Books, 2003. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-590170-489. 336 pages.

My rating: 8/10

A collection of twenty-seven delicately written fairy tales. Aimed at the younger crowd, but possibly more suited to real appreciation by adults. A few are slight, gentle and – in the very best sense of the word – childish, but others are rich in their imagery and complexity. The stories were selected by Eleanor Farjeon herself, and are deliciously and perfectly illustrated by the one and only Edward Ardizzone. Rumer Godden’s Afterword is a lovingly worded compliment to the author.

My own pretty well grown children are sadly long past the stage of being read to, but I am keeping this one close by both for personal pleasure and perhaps to one day share with as yet theoretical grandchildren.

sensible kate doris gatesSensible Kate by Doris Gates ~ 1943

This edition: Viking Press, 1969. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Doris Gates is perhaps best known for her Newbery Award runner-up children’s novel Blue Willow, as well as the widely read Little Vic, both viewed as important early examples of “realistic problem fiction” for young readers, not a genre I am particularly fond of as a rule, but which is perfectly acceptable when the characters and their story are over-emphasized over the “problem”. Doris Gates gets a pass; these are “real” novels no matter how they’re categorized.

Sensible Kate was Gates’ third novel, and it is a pleasant example of children’s literature of its era, with the young heroine facing her rather daunting challenges with good expectations of positive outcomes. The Kate of the novel is a likeable girl, flawed enough to be realistic, but with a solid core of goodness which makes her most appealing.

Kate has been an orphan as long as she can remember, and has been cared for by various “shiftless” relatives since babyhood. Now the relatives have decided to move out of the state, and they have decided to turn Kate over to the county relief office. Kate is placed as a foster child with an elderly couple, The Tuttles, and she soon makes herself beloved of them and many others whom she meets, including a young married couple, both artists, who are the very reverse of sensible in their daily affairs, and who are most appreciative of Kate’s practical talents.

A sweet but never saccharine story, with some interesting characters and scenarios which lift it a little over the average for its vintage and genre. Possibly one might pick up on the lightest shade of Anne of Green Gables, what with the red-haired heroine being an orphan and going off to live with an elderly couple, but the parallel ends right there. Kate is most certainly no Anne, and her creator has not attempted to model her so.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmithPeople Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

This edition: Penguin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006741-8. 356 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A rather unusual book, a noir almost-thriller with some odd twists, including a subplot involving a teenage girl’s abortion. Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this one came as no surprise.

Here we have a normal middle-class family, the Aldermans, with an insurance-salesman father, stay-at-home mother volunteering a few days a week at a children’s hospital, and teenagers Arthur and younger Robbie. Arthur is getting ready to go to college, has a satisfactorily active love life, and he is poised to get on with his life when his whole world takes a sickening lurch.

Robbie falls ill with a mysterious infection and is suddenly on the verge of death. The doctors turn away in dismissal – the boy is going to die –  but Mr. Armstrong refuses to give up hope, and prays diligently to God for a miracle. Robbie recovers, and the previously un-religious father is so moved by the experience that he embraces religion and joins a highly evangelistic Christian sect. Mrs. Armstrong and Arthur view this at first with mildly perturbed eyes, but Robbie fully embraces his father’s new-found faith, with eventual horrifying consequences.

A can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration, with none of the characters completely faultless, including our pseudo-hero Arthur, the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

 the wedding of zein tayeb salihThe Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih ~ 1968

This edition: New York Review Books, 2009. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-59017-342-8. 120 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two short stories and a short novella – the title story – by the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, set in the country around the northern Nile .

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid speaks to the importance of tradition, and to the quiet resistance of the people of the Sudanese country to outside influences.

A Handful of Dates concerns a young boy who becomes aware for the first time of the realities of rich and poor, and the role his grandfather has played in a neighbour losing his inheritance.

The Wedding of Zein concerns an unlikely hero, a physically deformed “village idiot” (for want of a better term), who insistently falls in love with one after another village maiden, only to be disappointed as they always marry someone else. Imagine then the shock of everyone when it is announced that Zein has at last found a prospective wife, and an unexpectedly wise and beautiful one at that.

This book gives a diverting glimpse into an unfamiliar world, and the stories are told with clarity and understated, rather sly humour. A short but worthwhile collection.

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the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.

*****

Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

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