ElCicco #CBR5 Review #21: The Grass Harp by Truman Capote


This edition of The Grass Harp includes  A Tree of Night and other short stories. The stories originally came out around 1950. The Grass Harp is the best known and, in my opinion, the best written, most complete story. It’s a coming of age story told from the point of view of an orphaned boy, Collin Fenwick, who lives with his two aunts. His is a reflection on a golden time from age of 12 to 16 and his love for his aunt Dolly. Dolly adores the color pink, sweet treats and is a loving and simple soul. She is older than Verena, but Verena is head of the household and has a reputation in town for being tough in business and tight with money. Dolly and Catherine, the maid who has been with the sisters since their youth, are close friends, and with Catherine’s and Collin’s assistance, Dolly concocts a secret formula for dropsy that she sells to local clients. The trouble begins when Verena sees the profitability of this venture and tries to build it into a genuine business. Dolly, Catherine and Collin run away from home and live in a treehouse in the woods for a short time, attracting attention and support from some other locals but ultimately leading to a showdown with Verena and local law enforcement. It’s a poignant reflection on family, loss, love and growing up.

Character development in The Grass Harp is more complete than in the other stories. In 100 pages, you get fairly well developed background on the main characters plus a host of delightful and fascinating supporting characters including the retired judge Charlie Cool who joins them in the treehouse, the sheriff and his cohort, and a traveling family of preachers. The stories in  A Tree of Night, on the other hand, lack this development and are much darker than The Grass Harp. They are set in the South or New York. Some provide a sort of slice of southern life, with some humor but also showing eccentricities and a darker side of small town life. Some are sad reflections on loneliness and depression, particularly the New York stories. Every story involves an intruder of sorts, someone unknown who insinuates him or herself into the main character’s life, usually with negative consequences. Some of the intruders are children and they can be downright sinister. I found these stories interesting but it seemed they ended rather abruptly and really aren’t of the same caliber as The Grass Harp.

Capote’s writing is arresting in all of the stories and that is what makes them so hard to put down and worth picking up. Character assessments are especially incisive. Capote describes Verena’s business acumen: “… money was like a wildcat whose trail she stalked with a trained hunter’s muffled step and an eye for every broken twig.” The local barber/town gossip Amos Legrand:  “A little monkeyman who had to stand on a box to cut your hair, he was agitated and chattery as a pair of castanets.” Capote also makes some interesting philosophical statements in his stories, such as “…dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us…” from Master Misery; and “…if you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove…” from Children on Their Birthdays. Some of the loveliest prose can be found in The Grass Harp. “Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

Reading The Grass Harp and Capote’s other short stories was a most pleasurable literary experience and has made me want to spend more time with Southern literature. The mix of humor and nostalgia with social critique and a certain melancholy is a powerful and arresting combination in the hands of masters like Capote, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #39: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Woo hoo! Another contemporary author “collected” for me. I have not been as enthralled with Ishiguro’s earlier works as I have his later, so this must mean his next books will be really great, right? Either way, Nocturnes is a change of pace, since it is comprised of 5 short stories.

In one short story, a street musician must help a veteran singer woo his estranged wife. In another, a struggling guitarist finds himself becoming entangled in a failing marriage. And in another, a jazz musician hopes that a facial plastic surgery will launch his career.

Individually, Ishiguro hits on his familiar themes: isolation, the individual’s place against an unfamiliar and unfriendly world, and the nature of memory and dreams in our reality. But this time, he sets them to a backdrop of music that plays out in intriguing ways with each story. Some characters will bleed over into other stories, a beautiful tapestry that makes this collection satisfying and unifying in a way that other short-story writers have yet to master.

After reading Nocturnes, I really, really wish that Ishiguro had been the one to write Cloud Atlas. My biggest complaint about it was that despite the superficial connections between the sets of novellas, it didn’t really feel seamless, and it didn’t come together, even in the end. Ishiguro’s mastery in Nocturnes (and really, his other work) demonstrates that he can craft a story that is both compelling and eloquently written. He needs to write something new for me. Seriously.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #33: The Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards

This short-story collection by the author of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” is mostly well-written and evocative. Each story is a unique vignette, often focused around male-female relationships in unusual circumstances, with occasional strands of the bizarre and the mystical tossed in. I felt I had traversed the globe, and traveled forward and backward in time by the time I had turned the last page of these stories, which range from the gold fever of an impoverished rubber-tapper in Malaysia to the downfall of a British matriarch in colonial India to the culture clash experienced by a Korean war-bride in her newly-adopted country. Edwards has lived and traveled in a number of Asian countries, and brings her special insights and familiarity with the cultures to bear in her stories.

All that said, I have to confess that as much as I wanted to love this collection, I found the stories very uneven, and the writing sometimes overblown and self-indulgent. The title story is the convoluted confession of a broken man, a performing “fire eater” who is betrayed by those he himself betrays. Thirst is a dark reverse of Disney’s Little Mermaid, more about whether we are fixed in nature or able to change who we are. In the Garden is a disturbing and, I felt, unsuccessful tale about self-love and the wrong kind of search for immortality. The Way It Felt to be Falling struck me as a rather adolescent view of adolescence, and The Story of My Life as a disappointing and somewhat shallow expose of religious fanaticism. I hated Aristotle’s Lantern, a poorly-conceived story which to me revealed the disappointment of an aging flower-child rather than any useful insight into the human condition.

But there are enough gems in here to make the collection worth working through. For example, The Great Chain of Being is a sad and slow-burning story of revenge by a daughter against the father who enslaved her and the siblings who let it happen. Rat Stories is about marital betrayal, told with a clever combination of both humor and pathos. The Invitation, my favorite, is a beautifully-constructed story about class/caste struggle, with many subtle nuances that lead inevitably to the stunning and very satisfying  revelation at the end. A Gleaming in the Darkness reflects Edwards’ thought-provoking view of personal sacrifice in the name of science.

Since these stories are a compilation of Edwards’ story-writing over a number of decades, it is no surprise that there is an unevenness in the quality of the writing and in the plot choices. One hopes that Edwards’ future endeavors in the short-story category will better showcase the accomplished writer that she has become.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #37: Delirium Stories by Lauren Oliver

16177805Okay, first, what is this annoying trend where authors omit bits of their story and put them in these short novellas? I hate it. It’s commercial and gross, I hate feeling obligated to read them, and it annoys me that they exist. With that said, I spotted this compilation of stories from Lauren Oliver’s Delirium world on the shelf at my library, and because it was in book form, the completionist in me knew I had to read it.

The three stories in the book (plus a chapter from Requiem, released before its publication date) are told from the perspectives of Hana (Lena’s childhood best friend), Annabel (Lena’s mother), and Raven (the leader of Lena’s group in the Wilds). All three stories show us alternate POVs for events that happened both during and before the Delirium books. And, I suppose to justify their existence as something other than a ploy to get rabid fans to pay more money, there are some revelations included.

The chief ‘pleasure’ of Annabel’s story is that we have heard virtually none of it, but Hana’s and Raven’s give us another view of events that have already happened. The chief revelation in Hana’s story is that she is the one who turned Lena and Alex in to the authorities in book one (something I learned for the first time when I read Requiem, but it was published here first). Raven’s is that she was fucking pregnant when she died, something that wasn’t even included in Requiem. I have bones to pick with both of these ‘revelations.’ Raven’s is the most obvious: if she was pregnant, we should have known about it. This is yet another example of how Oliver’s strict adherence to Lena’s POV (and Hana’s in Requiem) is a detriment to the story, as more often than not, Lena is an idiot with her head up her butt. Hana’s is a bit more complicated. There was virtually no clue in Delirium that Hana was so pissed off at Lena, so it feels like retconning when we learn about it. Again, I know this is in large part because if Lena didn’t know something, we didn’t know it either, but why limit yourself as an author to such a dull perspective?

I enjoyed the voices of all three of these women 1000% more than I enjoyed Lena’s. If Oliver would have included their POVs in the three novels, they would have been so much better, not only because we wouldn’t have had to spend all that time with Lena, but because it would have allowed her to open up the world she was building as an author in a much more in depth way (I know she included Hana as a POV in Requiem, but that’s a case of too little, too late). On a positive note, these stories on their own are much better pieces of writing than the main three books. Short stories suit Oliver’s poetical style.

Officially done with this series!

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #11: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein

ladies-and-gentlemen-coverAnyone who has been to Sunday school will recognize the stories in Jonathan Goldstein’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Samson and Delilah – all the Bible’s greatest hits are covered.

But rather than simply retell each familiar story, Goldstein embellishes them with humanity and humor. In Goldstein’s depiction, Adam was a dullard who couldn’t arouse any interest from Eve, and God “feared for Adam’s broken heart as though the whole universe depended on it.” Cain was jealous of his carefree brother and resentful of his parents “as though they had gambled away his inheritance.” Grumpy “old-school” Noah saw the value of hard work and craftsmanship and feared his children, members of the ‘pre-flood generation,” would end up “eating daisies and making out with dolphins.”

In the final chapter called “My Troubles (A Work in Progress by Joseph of N -),” Joseph is depicted as a somewhat jealous boyfriend who realizes “it’s flattering to think that your girl-friend is good enough for God” but he still feels like “your garden-variety guy who’s been cheated on. Sure, you’ve been cheated on with the Lord, but still.”

I personally found the book to be clever and poignant and respectful of the source material. You may not want to give a copy to your devout mother-in-law but it’s definitely good as an amusing and provocative retelling of the familiar Bible stories that over the years have become rote.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Tenth of December by George Saunders

saundersThe first time I tried to read George Saunders’ Tenth of December, I had been drinking. After two pages I had to put it down. If you tackle Saunders’ book of short stories, I recommend you do so well-rested and sober. I mean that as a compliment. It should have your undivided attention.

It’s true, Saunders’ writing style takes some getting used to – it’s part diary, part stream of consciousness – and sometimes there’s not much regard for grammar or punctuation. Some of the stories start mid-action. And sometimes, as with our own lives, the endings are abrupt.

But once I got started, I was fascinated by this collection of unnerving and surreal stories. A review by Jennifer Egan on the book jacket called the book subversive and hilarious. While I agree with subversive, I thought nearly every story was quite sad. Some stories will make you cringe. Some will make you flip back and forth between pages to make sure what you think happened actually happened. Nearly all have a sense of dread and a fantastical element that isn’t quite science fiction, just a sense that the stories take place in a not-to-distant, not-to-nice future.

While the time and place of some stories is unclear, the characters are all very human. They are all weighed down by their humanity and as a result, most act in desperation. Maybe that’s what makes the book so sad.

Saunders deftly writes as a variety of characters – boys, girls, mothers, fathers. In “Victory Lap” there’s Alison, an idealistic teenager, who dislikes the neighborhood boys because they “name their own nuts” and “aspire to work for CountryPower because the work shirts were awesome and you got them for free.”

Callie is the desperate mother from “Puppy” who goes to extreme ends to keep her son safe, but questions her actions, “Who was it that thought up the idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”

And then there is the sympathetic Eber from the “Tenth of December” who has a last shot at redemption and life and realizes “if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?”

The book is composed of 10 short stories. The shortest is a mere two pages, and the longest, the spectacular “Semplica Girl Diaries,” is just 60. I didn’t read the book in one sitting, but I read each story without interruption.

If getting wrapped up in a good book is like running a marathon, reading Tenth of December is like sprinting through an obstacle course. There are many things that can trip you up on the way, but once you get used to Saunders’ style, with all its idiosyncrasies, it is worth the effort.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #27: Amok & Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

I find reading Zweig like entering a crystal cave, a dark and secret place (make your own ‘gina jokes now, folks, this is a classy review). Talking about this collection, one novella and three short stories, I feel like I have to start at the end, with Anthea Bell’s afterword. So spoilers ahoy: Continue reading

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #24: The Best Early Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Chosen for my Roaring Twenties Literary Lollapalooza of one, celebrated in the last fortnight with me wearing a feathered flapper dress and toting a highball glass full of gin – in my mind, at least; in reality it was all sensible cardigans and warming cups of tea.

But Francis Kay did manage to transport me back to the jazz age. For all that many of these seem to have been written as mere entertainments, they’re sturdy constructions. The sheer range he made out of a construction as simple as the ‘flapper’ story, the weightlessness of the writing, the liveliness, was delicious. Some bittersweet, some cheerful, some heartbreaking, he managed to burn so bright in these early works, brighter than most ever will. Aargh, see, it’s difficult for a dolt like me to write about him without invoking the myth of the Fitzgeralds and their age. But reading these, I felt like I got more than ever just how intoxicating they would’ve been to his audience back when they were released, and what a breath of fresh air he was.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #22: First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

I’m down to my last two McEwan books, and it’s been interesting reading his works in reverse. First Love, Last Rites is his first collection of short stories and it certainly bears his trademark gothic-ness prevalent in his earliest works.

In this collection, we see a brother experimenting with sex (and unfortunately involving his younger sister, which…no), a deformed young man who has been infantilized by his mother, and a teen boy who is encouraged to wear disguises by his guardian (mother?) while trying to navigate a first love. Here, coming-of-age and the sourness of love gone wrong are the most prominent themes in the book.

I can tell that this is a “first effort,” but it’s interesting…I’m definitely glad that Ian McEwan has moved away from the Gothic into less creepy descriptions, scenarios, and endeavors.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

illynew’s #CBR5 Review #4 Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

Fragile Things

Does a collection of short stories count? I read Neverwhere and American Gods, the latter which I love, love, loved, so I wanted to find out how his stories read in shortened versions.

The stories are quite varied. There are poems and funny stories and sad stories, but they almost all of them take place outside this realm. My favorite, of course, was “The Monarch of the Glen”, an American Gods story. Shadow is such a delicious character. The Sherlock Holmes story was spot on for the Holmes canon, but fit with Gaiman’s style, too.

I finished it a few weeks ago and every once in a while one of the stories pops into my mind and clouds over my day a little bit, but in a good way. Namely, “Keepsakes and Treasures”, a story about rich people always getting what they want and getting away with it, and “Other People/Afterlife”, basically, hell. The former seems like something that could be happening right now somewhere in the world.  Some of the stories read like drafts of thoughts. Others are like unfinished dreams that are barely remembered. I had nightmares every night I read a story in the collection.

If you like Neil Gaiman’s writing, you’ll probably like most of the stories. Like, not love. If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s short stories, you’ll definitely like a few of these stories.