Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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the lost salt gift of blood 2 alistair macleodThe Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1976. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1989. Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9969-X. 160 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, no debate there. For reading “pleasure”, which of course is an extremely individual definition, I’m struggling with a rating. I’ll willingly put this on the keeper shelf, but I strongly suspect I may never read it again. The well-turned phrases are lovely in and of themselves, but the subject matter is so very bleak. This book makes me so glad I’m not in high school any more. What a godsend to keen Can-Lit teachers!

I started off reading this book with no foreknowledge of what the tone would be, though I suspected less than frivolous, what with the earnest back cover blurb:

The stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are remarkably simple – a family is drawn together by shared and separate losses, a child’s reality conflicts with his parents’ memories, a young man struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father.

Yet each piece of writing in this critically acclaimed collection is infused with a powerful life of its own, a precision of language and a scrupulous fidelity to the reality of time and place, of sea and Maritime farm.

Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, the seven stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood map the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child.

These seven stories are intense and perfectly crafted; I can easily believe that Alistair MacLeod spent a year writing each one; they feel perfected, pared down, edited for maximum effect to the nth degree. Marvelous writing.

But I came away from my reading – which I spaced out over a week or so because this isn’t the sort of stuff one can take in all at one sitting – feeling so terribly sad, which may in itself be the strongest tribute I can give to the power of MacLeod’s writing.

*****

These are all stories of “place”, very specifically regional, focussed on Cape Breton. The sea and the land are characters as much as any of the sentient creatures that occupy their worlds.

  • In the Fall ~ The teenage narrator, the oldest of six children, remembers the autumn his father was forced to sell his beloved old horse to the knacker. Heart-wrenching.  I have a very low tolerance for betrayal of old animals scenarios – hence my real-life situation of supporting a number of geriatric creatures in various stages of decline – so I almost bailed on the book at this point, but doggedly kept on. Though it never got much more cheerful…people started dropping in the following episodes. But, oh! – the evocative writing!

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contained no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

  • The Vastness of the Dark ~ A boy leaves home on his eighteenth birthday, with little plan but that he must get away from his here and now, and travel forward into something different.

(After the Cumberland No. 2 coal mine explosion)… I remember again… the return of my father and the haunted greyness of his face and after the younger children were in bed the quiet and hushed conversations of seeping gas and lack of oxygen and the wild and belching smoke and flames of the subterranean fires nourished there by the everlasting seams of the dark and diamond coal. And also of the finding of the remains of men flattened and crushed if they died beneath the downrushing roofs of rock or if they had been blown apart by the explosion itself, transformed into forever lost and irredeemable pieces of themselves; hands and feet and blown-away faces and reproductive organs and severed ropes of intestines festooning the twisted pipes and spikes like grotesque Christmas-tree loops and chunks of hair-clinging flesh. Men transformed into grisly jig-saw puzzles that could never more be solved.

  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood ~ A successful Toronto businessman returns to the Newfoundland community he has long left behind, to take a look at his illegitimate son who has recently been orphaned by the death of his mother and stepfather. Yearnings of fatherhood stir within him; should he tell the boy who he is?
  • The Return ~ A ten-year-old boy makes the trip from Montreal to visit his Cape Breton grandparents for the first time.
  • The Golden Gift of Grey ~ A teenage boy lives a secret life, visiting the pool hall after classes and forming a friendship with the man who was the cause of his father coming to Cape Breton from Kentucky ten years ago.
  • The Boat ~ An adult son remembers his father, and their life together on their fishing boat.
  • The Road to Rankin’s Point ~ This was the most personally moving and my favourite of all these seven stories. A terminally ill grandson returns to his elderly grandmother’s farm, seeking peace and a place to die.

I could easily have included excerpts from each of these stories – the most difficult task would have been deciding what to highlight among so many memorable passages –  but I will instead leave you to discover them for yourself, if you so choose.

A good review from another blogger is here: City Scrivener – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

A very readable scholarly examination of the stories is here: SCL – Studies in Canadian Literature – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

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the shout & other stories robert graves 001The Shout and other stories by Robert Graves ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1978. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00.4832-4. 300 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

A generous and widely eclectic sampling of Robert Graves’ short stories and personal anecdotes. While a bit uneven, as might be expected in an anthology spanning some forty years or so of one man’s writing career, but there is enough excellent reading in this book to make it a certain keeper.

The stories are grouped under three broad headings: English Stories, Roman Stories, and Majorcan Stories, but the first and third categories show quite a wide range in style, settings and topics. The three Roman Stories are the tightest grouping, theme-wise.

I enjoyed reading most of these, and came away feeling keen to continue to develop my acquaintanceship with the prolific Robert Graves. I do believe I might be ready to tackle his ambitious I, Claudius. If it is anything like the three Roman Stories in this collection, it will be very good indeed. I’ve been holding out for a better edition, as mine is a fat paperback with a cracked spine and tiny print (these unreliable middle-aged eyes are giving me grief lately), but I think I will dip in and see how it goes. If I like it I’ll upgrade to a physically nicer edition. Anyway, I’m straying off topic. Back to the volume at hand!

*****

From the author’s Introduction:

The first of these stories, The Shout, was written in 1924; and the last, Christmas Truce, in 1962. Most of them, including such improbable ones as Kill Them! Kill Them!, The Whitaker Negroes, Old Papa Johnson and A Toast to Ava Gardner, are true, though occasional names and references have been altered. Nor can I claim to have invented the factual details even of She Landed Yesterday, or An Appointment for Candlemas. In fact, a correspondent who read She Landed Yesterday reproached me for not mentioning the two French copper coins found in the coffin-doll’s pocket; and An Appointment for Candlemas brought members of the revived British witch cult to my door in search of information about flying ointments and such like. Pure fiction is beyond my imaginative range; I fetched back the main elements of The Shout from a cricket-match at Littlemore Asylum, Oxford.

ENGLISH STORIES: A variety of anecdotes and stories, most with some sort of “twist”.

  • The Shout ~ The otherwise seemingly normal resident of an insane asylum claims he has the power of the “terror shout”, which brings madness and even death to anyone within hearing range. Occultish and dark. Not one of my favourites, though it is memorable enough. 7/10.
  • Old Papa Johnson ~ “Old Papa Johnson” was once Crown Agent on Antarctica’s Desolation Island. His solitude is intruded upon by two uninvited guests, with dire consequences. 6/10.
  • Treacle Tart ~ In this short anecdote, eight-year-old Lord Julius Bloodstock unexpectedly descends upon a surprised prep school, but runs afoul of dietary rules, refusing his treacle tart and sparking something of a minor rebellion among the schoolboys. 6/10.
  • The Full Length ~ A portrait artist is asked to paint a picture of a recently deceased young lady whom he’s never seen, and who has never had her photograph taken. His solution is quite clever, and rather improbably lucky. 5/10.
  • Earth to Earth ~ A macabre little tale of an interest becoming an obsession. Dedicated composters, take warning! Queasily humorous; I laughed out loud with horrified glee at the ending. I *hope* this one was not true! This story would be right at home in a Roald Dahl (adult) story collection. 7/10.
  • Period Piece ~ A humorous little tale of a marital misunderstanding. 6/10.
  • Week-End at Cwm Tatws ~ Still channelling Roald Dahl at his darkest, Graves tells the story of a visit to a dentist gone very, very wrong. 6/10.
  • He Went Out to Buy a Rhine ~ A mysterious suicide turns out to have an esoteric explanation. 5/10.
  • Kill Them! Kill Them! ~ A poignant remembrance of a young man killed in the war. 6/10.
  • The French Thing ~ Gloriously funny tale of village life. Beware the vicarage daughter! Unexpected. Loved it. 10/10.
  • A Man May Not Marry His… ~ An odd little theological, medical and ethical debate about the implications of sex change operations. (I think.) 4/10.
  • An Appointment for Candlemas ~ An interview with a modern witch. Cheeky and funny. 8/10.
  • The Abominable Mr. Gunn ~ Memories of a sadistic schoolmaster. 6/10.
  • Harold Vesey at the Gates of Hell ~ An ironic little tale of village life. Nicely done. 7/10.
  • Christmas Truce ~ Christmas in the trenches, World War I. Enlightened commanders from the German and British sides arrange a temporary truce. 10/10.
  • You Win, Houdini! ~ The rise and fall and rise of a crooked minor magician turned army officer. 8/10.

ROMAN STORIES: That would be ancient Rome. These were all humorous in tone, and all excellent.

  • Epics Are Out of Fashion ~ Falling afoul of Emperor Nero is never a healthy idea, especially when one is a poet writing a thinly veiled mockery of that vindictive lord himself… 8/10
  • The Tenement: A Vision of Imperial Rome ~ This was my favourite story in the collection. An episode detailing daily life in ancient Rome. Brilliantly done; very funny, despite the tragic sudden ending! 10/10.
  • The Myconian ~ A provincial visitor from the island of Myconos is made acquainted with the dramatic and sporting diversions of Rome. Another 10/10.

MAJORCAN STORIES: Written during Graves’ long residence in Majorca, Spain.

  • They Say…They Say ~ gossip in the marketplace. 5/10.
  • 6 Valiant Bulls 6 ~ An epistolary episode detailing Spanish bullfighting, from “Margaret” to “Dearest Auntie May”. Not quite sure about this one; didn’t quite hit all its attempted high notes. 6/10.
  • A Bicycle in Majorca ~  The author’s personal anecdotal tale about civil bureaucracy in relation to the importation and retention of his sons’ British bicycles in Spain. Rather good. 8/10.
  • The Five Godfathers ~ Here’s Margaret gushing on to Auntie May again, this time detailing a confusing christening. Sort of amusing, but perhaps not as much as the author intended. 6/10.
  • Evidence of Affluence ~ A tale of revenge. This one works out very well, though I guessed the ending from a long way off. 8/10.
  • God Grant Your Honour Many Years ~ A misunderstanding and a happy resolution. Another amusing personal anecdote, well presented. 8/10.
  • The Viscountess and the Short-Haired Girl ~ A humorous tale of three Spaniards involved as witnesses in a slightly nefarious divorce case. In the end, everyone gets what they want. Complicated, but funny. 9/10.
  • A Toast to Ava Gardner ~ An appreciation of Ava Gardner, whom the author knew personally. Goes off on a divergent tangent or two. Rather sweet. 9/10.
  • The Lost Chinese ~ Another complicated tale, this time of playwrites and mistaken identities. Diverting. 7/10.
  • She Landed Yesterday ~ A nobleman commits suicide after dabbling in the occult. Love, betrayal and wounded pride move the narrative. 9/10.
  • The Whitaker Negroes ~ A horrifying portrait in an Irish antique shop leads back to America, and to a very strange story – part truth, part fable. 9/10.

*****

Note: Robert Graves is also the author of the recently reviewed Antigua, Penny, Puce, which I stumbled upon recently and subsequently found very diverting. A writer of broad range, well worth exploring.

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the rendezvous other stories daphne du maurier 001The Rendezvous and other stories by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1980. This edition: Pan, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-26554-7. 234 pages.

My rating: The first and last stories in this otherwise rather mild collection elevate my rating to an overall 7/10. Otherwise, probably not more than a 5, or maybe a 6. All are worth reading, but most are not quite top-of-the-line for this particular author.

In the Preface, the author briefly explains her inspirations, and mentions that these stories show her development as a writer. I think a nice addition to this collection would have been dates of writing or of original publication; this would have added much to my own enjoyment as a long-time Daphne du Maurier reader.

*****

Some excellent, some not so much in this 1980 collection of short stories from throughout the author’s long career. All are very well written; the “less excellent” ones are described as such only in comparison to this author’s absolutely brilliant “best”.

  • No Motive ~ Why would a sweet-natured, happily married, expectant mother fatally shoot herself ten minutes after cheerfully ordering new garden furniture? One of the longer stories in this collection, and nicely plotted out. 7/10.
  • Panic ~ A casual love affair goes terribly wrong. Fabulously atmospheric, but ultimately slight. The dénouement comes as no surprise. 5/10.
  • The Supreme Artist ~ An aging actor gives a most superb performance off stage, and comes abruptly to an intimation of his own mortality. 6/10.
  • Adieu Sagesse ~ Two men from the opposite ends of the social spectrum plot their escape from tedious lives. Loved this one; the right people “win”. 8/10.
  • Fairy Tale ~ A slight and unlikely snippet of a story of a ne’er-do-well husband and his adoring wife. “Fairy tale”, indeed! 3/10.
  • The Rendezvous ~ I expected much from the title story of this collection. A successful author who has spent his life in observation finally arranges an “experience” for himself, only to be disappointed at every turn. In general, well done. But I wanted something just a little bit more. 6/10.
  • La Sainte-Vierge ~ Innocence and corruption. A snippet of a story, but very evocative of both. 5/10.
  • Leading Lady ~ Cherchez la femme… Another theatrical setting. Daphne used her eyes and ears well when about the backstage world. 6/10.
  • Escort ~ A maritime ghost story set in World War II. It’s been done before, but this attempt is reasonably decent. Nice detail on board the ghost ship. 5/10.
  • The Lover ~ A damning portrait of a rather vicious “lady’s man”. Didn’t really go anywhere as a story. 4/10.
  • The Closing Door ~ A young man faces up to a dire diagnosis. His lover unknowingly twists the knife. No shortage of symbolic situation in this one; I suspect it is one of the earlier efforts of the author. 5/10.
  • Indiscretion ~ Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Three lives are changed by a single sentence. A mite too contrived for my full enjoyment. 4/10.
  • Angels and Archangels ~ Religion and hypocrisy. The hypocrites win. A bitter little tale. 5/10.
  • Split Second ~ This story is the definite high point of the book. A middle-aged woman goes out for a walk, and comes away from a brush with death to a very different world. Or does she? Brutally pathetic, and perfectly written. 9/10.

Here’s another assessment of this collection:

Savidge Reads – The Rendezvous and other stories

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marrying off mother gerald durrellMarrying Off Mother and other stories by Gerald Durrell ~ 1991. This edition: Harper Collins, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-99-223808-X. 197 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

A quick, easy, and enjoyable read.

I have a strong fondness for Gerald Durrell’s self-aware, tongue-in-cheek, and humorously wry writings, stretching back to a childhood introduction to his books when my parents were given a copy of Catch Me a Colobus. My father had it on his night table, and was reading it with evident enjoyment, and when I asked him what it was about he handed it to me with a smile. I laboriously read it – I was of the tender age of 8 or 9 at the time – and was hooked.

Since then I do believe I’ve read every single thing the man wrote, with the exception of some of the juveniles of the writer’s last years. Obviously not an exclusive reaction, as Gerald Durrell was a best-selling author and eventually a household name in the English-speaking world –  right up there with the even more prominent David Attenborough –  though he (Durrell) bluntly stated in his later books that the income from his writing helped in great part to finance his pet project, the Jersey Zoo & Wildlife Preservation Trust , and that he continued to produce manuscripts only for the purpose of furthering his wildlife work.

Be that as it may, the man did have a decided literary talent, and in later years broadened his scope from the autobiographical to the more obviously fictional, with several novels and a number of short stories to his credit.  Many of Gerald Durrell’s fictional short stories show a decidedly macabre twist to the man’s mind; one in particular, The Entrance, the final story in The Picnic and Other Pandemonium – an otherwise quite light-hearted and delightful compilation – has the distinction of being one of the creepiest and most frightening tales I’ve ever read, and rather put me off Durrell completely for a while, giving an unwelcome insight into something other than the avuncular animal-loving anecdotist one innocently assumed. I got over it, though I still think of that particular book with a reminiscent shudder, and have studiously ignored it ever since. Though now that I’ve been reminded, I have the feeling that I should perhaps face my fears and re-read it and review it. Maybe. Or maybe not…

As usual, I’ve digressed. Back on track, then, with a rundown on this short story compilation, which, though a bit dark in places, was, as always, mostly just plain diverting reading, perfect for tea break consumption – engaging but not too challenging, and easy to take up and put down.

  • Esmeralda

Of all the many regions in La Belle France, there is one whose very name adds a lustrous glitter to the eye of a gourmet, a flush of anticipation to his cheeks, that drenches his taste buds with anticipatory saliva, and that is the euphonious name of Périgord. Here the chestnuts and walnuts are of prodigious size, here the wild strawberries are as heavily scented as a courtesan’s boudoir. Here the apples, the pears and the plums have sublime juices captured in their skins, here the flesh of chicken, duckling and pigeon is firm and white, here the butter is as yellow as sunshine and the cream on top of the churns is thick enough to balance a full glass of wine on. As well as all these riches, Périgord has one supreme prize that lurks beneath the loamy soil of her oak woods, the truffle, the troglodyte fungus that lives below the surface of the forest floor, black as a witch’s cat, delicious as all the perfumes of Arabia.

Enter one Esmeralda, a porcine lady graced with a delicate golden chain around her neck, and smelling delicately of the exclusive perfume Joy…

  • Fred – or A Touch of the Warm South

On a lecture tour of the American South, our author is hosted by a Traditional Southern Lady, and meets her butler Fred. By the by, the amount of ardent spirits consumed during this short foray into Tennessee give an insight into Durrell’s subsequent liver problems. The man did seem to enjoy tipping them back!

As the taxi drew up (the) handsome door was thrown open to the frame by a very large, very black gentleman with white hair in tail coat and striped trousers. He looked as though he might be the accredited Ambassador of practically any emerging nation. In the rich port-like tones that I remembered from the telephone he said, ‘Mr. Dewrell, welcome to Miz Magnolia’s residence.’ and then added as an afterthought, ‘Ahyam Fred.’

‘Glad to know you, Fred.’ I said. ‘Can you handle the luggage?’

‘Everything will be under control,’ said Fred.

The taxi driver had deposited my two suitcases on the gravel and driven off. Fred surveyed them as if they were offensive litter.

‘Fred,’ I said, interested, ‘do you normally wear that clothing?’

He glanced down his body with disdain.

‘No,’ he said, ‘but Miz Magnolia say ah was to greet yew in traditional costume.’

‘You mean that this is traditional costume here in Memphis?’ I asked.

‘No suh,’ he said bitterly, ‘it’s traditional costume where yew comes from.’

  • Retirement

A Scandinavian ship’s captain looks forward to his last voyage and retirement beside the sea, but his plans are tragically set at naught. A delicately appreciative tale with a chillingly memorable ending.

  • Marrying Off Mother

A return to the sunny Corfu of My Family and Other Animals, and an attempt by her children to bring some romance into Mrs. Durrell’s life.

‘I wonder if passion flowers would look nice on that east wall,’ said Mother, looking up from her seed catalogue. ‘They are so pretty. I can imagine that east wall just covered with passion flowers, can’t you?’

‘We could do with a bit of passion around here,’ said Larry. ‘Just recently, the place has been as chaste as a nunnery.’

‘I don’t see what passion flowers have got to do with nuns,’ said Mother.

Larry sighed and gathered up his mail.

‘Why don’t you get married again?’ he suggested. ‘You’ve been looking awfully wilted lately, rather like an overworked nun.’

‘Indeed I haven’t,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘You’re looking sort of shrewish and spinsterish,’ said Larry… ‘And all this mooning about passion flowers. It’s very Freudian. Obviously what you want is a dollop of romance in your life. Get married again.’

‘What rubbish you talk, Larry,’ said my mother, bridling. ‘Get married again! What nonsense! Your father would never allow it.’

‘Dad’s been dead for nearly twelve years. I think his objection could be overruled, don’t you? …’

Never fear. Mother competently turns the tables on her meddling family.

  • Ludwig

Do Germans, as a race,  have a sense of humour? The author attempts to answer this query with the cooperation of a willing-to-learn hotel manager, one Ludwig Dietrich.

  • The Jury

A former British public hangman is discovered to be living in a remote South American village. Though he has tried to make a new life for himself, he can’t outrun his past. An appropriately nasty ending awaits him, with our author as chief (fictional, one would hope and assume) witness.

  • Miss Booth-Wycherly’s Clothes

An ex-nun creatively and anonymously supports her old order’s orphanage, with the help of the bequest of the magnificent wardrobe of the deceased Miss Booth-Wycherly of Monte Carlo.

  • A Parrot for the Parson

The gift of a foul-mouthed parrot assists a defrocked vicar in his quest for replacements for the choirboys he longer has easy access to. Immensely politically incorrect, but rather funny in an “I shouldn’t be laughing at this” sort of way.

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tip on a dead jockey irwin shaw 001Tip on a Dead Jockey and other stories by Irwin Shaw ~ 1957. This edition: Signet, 1957. Paperback. 176 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Very decent collection of mostly melancholic short stories about jaded Americans in post-war Europe and “back home”.

I found this disintegrating paperback on my dad’s workshop bookshelves when I was going through his papers after his death six years ago. Dad liked his reading straight-serious (think detailed war memoirs and biographies), and satirical-serious (John Steinbeck was a big favourite), and cynically humorous (Wilhelm Busch in the original German was there in a number of editions), and technical and creative (Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, heaps and heaps, dating back to the early 1950s – my son scooped these and they now reside in dusty, well-read, falling apart glory on the cabin bookshelves), and travel and historical (National Geographic, of course, another massive, complete collection. I think these start with the 1961 full year, though there are stray earlier ones.) The dramatic fictional bestsellers of the day were well-represented as well, lots of Irwin Shaw around when I was growing up, though I don’t remember this particular one. Must have been on a really high shelf!

This Shaw collection, from very early in the writer’s career – 1946 to 1957 being the publication dates mentioned on the copyright page – are crisp, clean, often cynically humorous, well written and definitely entertaining. Not all have conclusions, which while a bit cliffhangerish is not necessarily a handicap to appreciation. Good stuff. Thanks, Dad.

I’ve been reading other bloggers’ magnificent and thoughtful posts with great admiration recently, and am feeling decidedly sub-par in this regard tonight – I will not even try to get all deep and meaningful.

Here’s my review: I liked these stories. They were very readable. You may find yourself craving a glass of whiskey (with or without a mixer), or a bottle of harsh red French wine (glass optional). My usual beverage of choice, a “nice cup of tea”, felt rather too granny-ish; I was almost ashamed of myself. No, hang on – two of the stories had tea-drinking in them. Though one couple  added rum. Hm, that sounds fairly foul. Or maybe not?! Worked for the characters, apparently – it was followed by a night of passion!

*****

Tip on a Dead Jockey ~ In post-war Paris, pilot Lloyd Barber is offered a chance at some easy money, just one simple trip, flying a brand-new single-engine Beechcraft, from Egypt to Cannes.

“Alone?” Barber asked, trying to keep all the facts straight.

“Alone, that is,” Smith said, “except for a small box… When you take off from the airport in Cairo, the box is not on board. And when you land at the airport at Cannes, the box is not on board. Isn’t that enough?”

It’s not quite enough, or maybe it’s too much – Barber eventually turns the job down, but not before inadvertently introducing Smith to another pilot friend, the naïve and trusting Jimmy Richardson.

You didn’t have to speculate about Jimmy. If you bought Jimmy a drink, he was your friend for life. For all that he had been through – war and marriage and being a father and living in a foreign country – it had still never occurred to Jimmy that people might not like him or might try to do him harm. When you were enjoying Jimmy, you called it trustfulness. When he was boring you, you called it stupidity.

Choosing not to warn Jimmy about Smith’s “opportunities”, Barber is overwhelmed with guilt and unease when Jimmy’s distraught wife shows up begging for help in finding him; he’s been gone thirty-two days without a word. There’s a little twist in the tail of this tale.

This short story was worked up into a 1957 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, with loads of added elements; only the author’s original sketchy premise and a few of the names remained the same.

A Wicked Story ~ A wife’s unfounded  jealousy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the French Style ~ Cynical Walter Beddoes, “career man in the foreign service”, returns to his home base in Paris from two months away in Egypt to find his reliable good time girlfriend has decided to move on to something more permanent. Beddoes had had his chance, but he’d ducked it:

It was lucky he was leaving, if she was moving into that phase. That was the pre-yearning-for-marriage phase, and you had to be on guard against it, especially late at night, in Paris, in darkened rooms where pianists and electric guitars played songs about dead leaves and dead loves and lovers who were separated by wars.

Beddoes had been married once, and he felt, for the time being, that that was enough. Wives had a tendency to produce children, and sulk and take to drink or other men when their husbands were called away to the other side of the earth for three or four months at a time on jobs.

Of course, there are regrets.

Peter Two ~ Thirteen-year-old Peter has a harsh foray into the fickleness of the adult world. This one almost cries out to be included in a high school short story anthology – maybe it has been? – I can imagine how joyfully an earnest teacher would pick it apart and spread out its “discussion points”! Lots of essay material here, oh yes indeed.

It was Saturday night and people were killing each other by the hour on the small screen, Policemen were shot in the line of duty, gangsters were thrown off roofs, and an elderly lady was slowly poisoned for her pearls, and her murderer was brought to justice by a cigarette company after a long series of discussions in the office of a private detective. Brave, unarmed actors leaped at villains holding forty-fives, and ingénues were saved from death by the knife by the quick thinking of various handsome and intrepid young men.

Peter sat in the big chair in front of the screen, his feet up over the arm, eating grapes. His mother wasn’t home, so he ate the seeds and all as he stared critically at the violence before him. When his mother was around, the fear pf appendicitis hung in the air and she watched carefully to see that each seed was neatly extracted and placed in an ashtray. Too, if she were home, there would be irritated little lectures on the quality of television entertainment for the young, and quick-tempered fiddling with the dials to find something that was vaguely defined as educational …

Suddenly, in the hall outside the apartment, a woman screams…

Age of Reason ~ A man’s repeated nightmare highlights uneasy aspects of his marriage, and forebodes a disaster which may or may not come to pass.

The Kiss at Croton Falls ~ Frederick Mull, trolley driver, “a huge rollicking man, with a russet mustache”, a drinking habit, and a supremely jealous wife who sneaks around spying on Mull’s lady passengers, dies at the height of his glory, leaving his wife to convene with his ghost, and his grown-up daughter Clarice to take a good hard look at her own husband. Grand little story, humorous and perfectly crafted.

Then We Were Three ~ American expatriates Munnie, Bert and Martha travel through France enjoying a platonic three-way friendship which lasts one day too long.

The Sunny Banks of the River Lethe ~ A man’s perfect memory dissolves. Irwin’s been reading Kafka.

The Wedding of a Friend ~ Ronny Biddell’s wedding brings back memories of his ill-fated, one-sided, first love affair during the war, with the duplicitous but delicious French Virginie. Light-hearted.

Voyage Out, Voyage Home ~ Lovely young American Constance is taking a quiet, solitary skiing vacation in Switzerland at her father’s expense, to mull over her prospective marriage to a much older man (Daddy doesn’t approve), when she meets the charming, reckless Englishman Pritchard. No surprises, but nicely done – a classic tale of  love and loss.

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the roaring girl greg hollingshead 001The Roaring Girl: Stories by Greg Hollingshead ~ 1995. This edition: Somerville House, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 1-895897-53-X. 196 pages.

My rating: 4/10. These are cleverly written, but a little too far out there for me. I wouldn’t re-read any of these anytime soon, and if I’d never heard of Greg Hollingshead it wouldn’t break my heart.

This collection won the 1995 Governor General’s Award for English Fiction – Short Stories, and the contents are undeniably well-written, but most of the stories left me feeling more than a mite confused, and usually a whole lot disturbed. Hollingshead has a creative mind and a grand way with words – some of his phrases lift up off the page and vigorously come to life – but it’s all kind of kinky. Often humorous, but definitely dark. Lots of sex – mostly of the “ew!” nature – and deeply twisted thoughts.

I’m not going to spend any time deeply reviewing this one, because it would require me to spend more time in Greg’s head (as it were) and, quite frankly, I don’t want to.  I’ll be moving The Roaring Girl along to see if it can find a more suitable home.

*****

  • The Side of the Elements – A couple rents out their home for the year they must be away. Stuff goes on in their absence. This one I rather liked.
  • The People of the Sudan – A family is maneuvered into taking temporary care of a box full of Canadian Christian Relief “supplies” for someone going to the Sudan; the rendezvous goes awry and the situation goes surreal. Another good one; downright humorous.
  • Rose Cottage – A young man becomes involved in trying to fix what he believes is an abusive relationship between a nurse and her elderly charge.
  • The Roaring Girl – A transient girl is given temporary haven by a family, deeply affecting the adolescent son.
  • The Age of Reason – Some sort of dysfunctional family saga. I have no idea what this was all about!
  • Rat With Tangerine –  Ditto.
  • A Night at the Palace – This one was a complete nightmare – couldn’t finish it. People behaving strangely. And badly. Hallucinogenic.
  • The Appraisal – Oh, thank goodness – an actual narrative arc! Well, relatively speaking. A cottage appraisal turns into a conversation on the nature of civilization, and its impending collapse. Awesome – loved it.
  • The Death of Brulé – A young boy becomes involved with the older girl next door. Ick.
  • The Naked Man – Another absolutely surreal family tale.
  • How Happy They Were – Sad people; love gone wrong.
  • Walking on the Moon – The view from a roof overlooking the people next door. Odd.

So – out of these twelve there were four I kind of, sort of, almost enjoyed reading. The Appraisal is the only one I’d willingly seek out again. Goodbye, Roaring Girl!

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