Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Kate Chopin and Shirley Jackson

A couple of weeks ago, Sophia of Sophia’s Book Blog read and reviewed a lovely short story called Lilacs by Kate Chopin. I really liked the story so I explored a few more of Chopin’s works and A Pair of Silk Stockings was another one of her stories that I liked. I also stumbled upon a story by Shirley Jackson named The Lottery. Apparently, it is her best-known work and a popular American short story. Sadly, I had never heard of the author or the story before but I’m definitely going to be reading more of her now.  Okay, so onto the stories.

A Pair of Silk Stockings
Mrs Sommers is a sensible woman.  So, when she finds herself unexpectedly richer by fifteen dollars, she makes plans to use the money sensibly. All of her children could have fresh new clothes and hats and stockings. However, Mrs Sommers’ sensible plans are derailed by a pair of silk stockings. 
This is not a twist in the end tale. There are no surprises here. But I really liked the way Chopin treats her protagonist. Mrs Sommers is instantly recognizable. We all know women like her to whom, ordinarily, self-indulgence is a bad word. The whole story revolves around just one character and a few hours in her life. Nothing remotely thrilling but a gentle and poignant read. You can find it here.

The Lottery
 Its lottery day in a small village in America. There is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. The preparations have been meticulously done and the whole village has gathered to witness the important event. This particular lottery has been around for a very long time. It is a part of the local tradition, and yet, it is anything but traditional.
It is difficult to write much about the story without giving it all away. You really have to go into it knowing nothing. Apparently, when this story was first published in 1948, it really rattled a lot of people who believed that it was an attack on the value system of small town America. I cannot guess whether Jackson intended it as an attack but there is no denying the whiplash effect of the story. You can find it online here.

Anyone read any other works by Jackson? Any recommendations? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Scoop and Behind the Screen by Agatha Christie and other Distinguished Members of the London Detection Club.

Before I get to the stories, I must tell you about the London Detection Club. Isn’t it an absolutely delectable idea? G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Baroness Emma Orczy and of course Agatha Christie were only some of the founding members of this club. The members of this club met regularly over dinner and helped each other with their plots and such. It was understood that the club was to consist only of writers who wrote detective fiction and not espionage, adventure or horror stories. This was emphasised with an oath that all members had to take, “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect?”  The club also indulged in a few whimsical rituals that are cited in the preface of this book.

Coming to the book itself, it consists of two mysteries, not quite small enough to be called short stories.  These stories were initially broadcast, a chapter a week, by their authors on the BBC National Programme and then published in serial form in The Listener.  This book was published to raise funds so that club premises could be acquired. Apparently, other such collaborative books were also published, namely The Floating Admiral, Ask a Policeman and Verdict of Thirteen. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. Meanwhile, on to the stories.

The Scoop
An up-and-coming reporter is sent to investigate and report on the sensational murder of a young woman in a lonely bungalow. The reporter calls back to office claiming to have traced the murder weapon. This would make a great story for the Morning Star. Unfortunately the reporter never gets the chance to write the story. He is found murdered in a telephone booth. 

According to the afterword The Scoop had been outlined and discussed in broad terms by all the writers involved, with each writer adding their own nuances but working within the blueprint. Agatha Christie writes two of the early and quite crucial chapters. I found this story to be more representative of Christie’s usual style and method, which makes me feel that perhaps she helmed this. Then again, I’m probably not the best judge because Christie and Sayers are the only two authors of this story whom I’ve read before. Each author displays their own distinctive style in their chapters. This could so easily have turned into a disconnected hodgepodge, but happily, it doesn’t. The different voices tie in together quite seamlessly and no jarring note is struck. I really enjoyed this mystery. Not to belittle the other excellent contributors to this story but I will always think of it as an Agatha Christie mystery.

Behind the Screen
This story almost reads like a lateral puzzle. At least it starts off that way. A family sits in their parlour after dinner doing the things they normally do at this hour. They are joined by the man who is to marry the daughter of the house. It is all very mundane and normal except for the strange sense of unease in the room. The apparent calm is shattered when a body is found crumpled behind a screen in the parlour. Yet, it is hardly possible for anyone to have committed this crime without the others noticing.

Unlike The Scoop, in Behind the Screen, the first three authors carried the story along according to their fancies; while the last three used their wits, in consultation, to unravel the clues presented to them by the first three. This sounds like an exciting prospect, unfortunately, it doesn’t play out too well. The first three, including Christie, chalk out a brilliant premise and weave a pretty tight and interesting mystery, but the other three just don’t seem to know what to make of it or where to take it. The final chapter is particularly disappointing, a hastily put together ‘solution’ that rather forcibly makes the facts fit around the answer. It also breaks one of the cardinal rules of good detective fiction,that the reader must be made aware of all the relevant facts early on. This had all the makings of a really memorable detective story, but sadly, it falls very short.

Before I wrap this up, I must share with you the blessing that is pronounced after a member takes oath at the London Detection Club.
             You are duly elected a member of the Detection Club,
And if you fail to remember you promises and break even one of our unwritten rules,
may other writers anticipate your plots
may total strangers sue you for libel
may your pages swarm with misprints
and your sales continually diminish.
But should you, as no doubt you will, recall these promises and observe these rules,
may reviewers rave over you
and literary editors lunch you.
May book clubs bargain for you
And women’s magazines carve you up.
May films be made from you (and keep your plots)
And American universities embalm you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Roald Dahl’s “Grown-up” Stories.

Roald Dahl figured quite prominently in my childhood reading line-up. Starting with Mathilda, I’ve read and loved most of his children’s books. Then I forgot all about him until a few years ago when someone gifted me a collection of his short stories for grown-ups. It was quite a revelation to me that the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox had written these sinister tales. This week I read two of his short stories. Both these stories are by no means the best of Dahl, and that is saying something because these are really good. You could randomly pick up any of his short stories and be guaranteed a good read. Some of my favorite Dahl stories are, The Great Automatic Grammatizator , Skin and The Way Up to Heaven. I opted to review stories that are available online so you can read them, if you haven’t already.

Man from the South

The story begins with the narrator lounging by a pool in a hotel in Jamaica where he’s joined by an odd man of unknown nationality. Soon an American sailor and an English girl also take up seats beside them. The American offers Carlos, the stranger, a light from his cigarette lighter and brags about the lighter never failing to light up, even when it is windy. Carlos then suggests that they bet on it. A bizarre yet tempting bet. If the American manages to light his lighter ten consecutive times, Carlos will give him his brand new Cadillac, but should he lose, he must give up his little finger.

This story is titled The Smoker in some collections. It is classic Roald Dahl. Politically incorrect, bizarre and dark with an unexpected ending. Dahl doesn’t bother with setting or back story or in-depth characterizations.  You know as much as you need to know and no more. In a strange way, this is much more menacing. The character of Carlos, for instance, you can’t figure him out. He sometimes seems eccentric, sometimes sinister and sometimes just plain pathetic. This story, with its intriguing premise and clean structure, lends itself, very easily to adaptations and spin offs.  I’ve seen/read three different versions of it but the original still has the most impact.

Lamb to the Slaughter

Mary Maloney is pregnant and happily married to Patrick, a police detective. At least, she thinks she is happily married. Patrick, it seems, has other ideas. Here again, we are not really told what Patrick thinks but it is implied that he is about to walk out on Mary. The details are not provided because they don’t matter. Without any clear idea of what she’s about to do, Mary strikes Patrick on his head with a frozen leg of lamb.

This isn’t really a whodunit, more of a ‘is-she-going -to-get-away-with-it’. It’s a unique spin on the standard murder mystery and the sheer simplicity of the plot really works. Dahl deals with murder and its aftermath as if it were an interesting but inconsequential puzzle.

These stories are a great example of the writer’s skill. Dahl’s short stories, or what I’ve read of them, are all about the mundane turning macabre. Not for him the deserted houses and the dark alleys.  His sinister creations walk among us, living seemingly ordinary lives. Every time you read a story of his, you are expecting a shake up at the end and yet he still manages to shock you. 

Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at
Roald dahl image from

Friday, October 7, 2011

Literary Blog Hop Oct 6-9

Literary Blog Hop

Its time for the Literary Blog Hop again. Phew! the past month just flew by. This weeks question comes from one of my favorite bloggers Mel U over at the Reading Life.

When I was in my early teens I read a book called Van Loon's Lives by Hendrick Willlem Van Loon. It was written in 1942 (Van Loon was a Newberry Winner for another work). I was maybe ten or so when I first read it and I was totally fascinated. The story line is that Von Loon and his good friend found a magic way to invite three famous literary figures from different eras for a Sunday Dinner. The book gives mini bios of the guests, explains the food the would have wanted and shows their dinner conversations. If you could invite any three literary figures from different eras to a Sunday Dinner who would they be? Magic takes care of the language issues.

Wow! What a thought?!! I think i'd go with three of my favorite female literary icons. Not to be sexist or anything but I do think a girls night out with these fabulous femme's would be something to remember.

1. Agatha Christie:
No one can spin a whodunit quite like the grand dame of mystery. To create, not one but several memorable detectives is something amazing.

2. Virginia Woolf:
I've mentioned this before but there's something about Woolf that has always fascinated me. Perhaps because she's impossible to pigeon-hole.

3. Simone de Beauvoir
She practically invented feminism. And not the kind that gets all the bad press. Her ideologies may seem militant but they are rooted in compassion.

I wish I could have such a dinner party. I'd totally invite you all :)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Dark and Spooky Tales by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was nicknamed "Bitter Bierce", and after reading his stories, it is easy to see why.  Although the stories I read were undoubtedly lacking sunshine, they were very well written.  In fact, Bierce’s life or rather his death is as spooky as any of his stories. He was travelling in Mexico whence he disappeared without a trace and was never heard from again. Sounds like something he would write. This week I read two of his short stories, among them An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is his best known work.

Beyond the Wall

The narrator, who is never named, renews contact with an old school chum, an aristocrat named Mohun Dampier. He goes to meet Dampier at the latter’s home and is dismayed to find his once-handsome and robust friend now looking absolutely ghostly. There is an atmosphere of doom and decay around the house and it is clear that Dampier himself is wasting away. Barely have the friends exchanged a few not-so-pleasantries when there is a gentle tapping sound which seems to be coming from the adjoining room. Except, there is no adjoining room. There is nothing beyond the wall but the dark night.

Now, this is paint by numbers spooky story. There is nothing here that you haven’t read before and you almost always know what the next scene is going to be. The atmosphere that Bierce strives to create is also pretty clich├ęd with a raging storm and a gloomy house. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad story; just that it is a standard issue horror story, perfect for when you are in the mood for such a thing.  Perhaps it just takes a lot more to shock and scare us today than it did with readers in Bierce’s time.

Give it a go. You can find it Here.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The story, set in the American Civil War, begins with a man standing on a railroad bridge, bound hand and foot, with a noose around his neck. Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy plantation owner and confederate loyalist is about to be hanged for trying to destroy an important bit of the railroad. All the preparations for the execution are complete and now it only remains for the captain to give the signal and the deed will be done. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and also of escape. Then, in a strange turn of events, he does escape. What comes next is the big daddy of all twist in the tale endings.

As I mentioned before, this story was always considered Bierce’s best. I haven’t read enough of his stories to make a comparative judgement but this would be pretty hard to top. Almost the entire story takes place on a plank on the bridge with a noose around the protagonist’s neck. How’s that for a setting?  We drift in and out of Farquhar’s mind until reality and imagination blend seamlessly into each other. Really, this is the work of a master craftsman.
It’s an amazing story but also a very disturbing one. Bierce treats the subject of death and execution with a casualness and thoroughness that makes the whole experience even more macabre for the reader. This is no bedtime story. More like a brilliantly written nightmare.

You can read it Here.