Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘short stories’

The Best of O Henry by O Henry

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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In my quest to get through the collection which is made up of over one hundred of William Sydney Porter’s short stories, I’ve read a story each night for what feels like forever, starting with the collection that makes up Cabbages and Kings.

The stories in Cabbages and Kings are about the mostly American inhabitants of Coralio, a town in the Republic of Anchuria, a fictitious Central American country whose main export is bananas.

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I loved the plots and conversational writing style in this collection, although I was surprised by the level of racism towards anyone who wasn’t white. I hadn’t expected this and found it to be offensive. Even taking into account that these stories were written in a different time, I think most modern reader would struggle with this element in this collection.

The characters include the runaway President of the Republic with his misbegotten bag of cash and his opera singer, various American diplomats, a detective and handfuls of business people in Anchuria to make their fortunes. The characters come and go, wheel and deal, and involve themselves in intrigue, secrets, politics and lies. The stories felt very loosely linked until the last chapter, when they were cleverly pulled together with a very funny twist.

The next collection of stories was Roads of Destiny. The theme of this collection is luck and the part it plays in our lives. This collection were mostly set all over America, although the title story was set in France. All of the main characters were men who had set off to achieve something and their stories leave the reader wondering if there is any point in trying to change our destinies.

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The title story of Roads of Destiny tells us that if something is meant to happen, then it probably will. The plot has a runaway poet coming to a fork in the road which gives him three choices; this way, that way, or return. We learn how things would have worked out for him had he taken each road, similar to the plot of the movie, Sliding Doors.

Many of the stories in this collection were funny and had a twist in the tail, but like Cabbages and Kings, most also included examples of the racism of the author and his times which don’t stand up to a modern read.

I enjoyed The Discounters of Money, which was a romance and The Enchanted Profile, the story of a miser who had a fondness for a young woman whose profile was similar to that of a woman’s head on a coin, but my favourite story in the collection was Friends in Rosario. Who would have thought that the old-time owners of banks in the wild west would have done anything dodgy? Not me, that’s for sure.

By the time I got to the last story in this collection, The Lonesome Road, I was ready for a break from O. Henry. Although the stories are well-told, humorous and about all sorts of people and their lives, I was beginning to feel as if I was never going to finish this book which is big enough to be a doorstop, so I put it aside for a few months before coming back to it.

The next collection of stories was from Whirlygigs. I enjoyed this collection all the better for having had a break and found the stories to be quirkier, funnier and more clever than those in the previous collections.

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The Whirligig of Life was one of my favourite stories in this collection. A married couple who wanted to divorce paid $5 to be free, but soon realised they wanted to be married to each other again. Luckily, the judge who charged them $5 for the divorce was prepared to marry them again for another $5.

I also enjoyed Tommy’s Burglar, where the main characters are aware that they are fictional and are fed up with the cliched lives they live within their 2000-word story. This story is very, very cleverly done.

As a wife who hides how much chocolate she eats from her husband, I thoroughly enjoyed Suite Homes and Their Romance, where ice-cream eating is a secretive and illegal pleasure which wives hide from their husbands who wonder what they are dropping their coin on…

Madame Bo-Peep of the Ranches was another favourite of mine from this collection. This is a longer story of a romance between a likeable young woman from the city, who moves to a sheep ranch in Texas due to poverty and a young man-about-town she used to know. O Henry’s stories often have a way of things working out for the best for the characters and this one left me feeling happy.

The next collection was Heart of the West which had romance and their Texan locations in common. Again, most of the stories have a surprise at the end.

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Hearts and Crosses tells of a husband and wife who both want to wear the pants on their ranch, a problem which confuses their ranch-hands and took time, a happy event and new ways of thinking to resolve. I enjoyed seeing a capable heroine in this story, as many of the women in previous stories were only tokens, in the manner of the ‘little lady.’

The Ransom of Mack was an amusing story of a gold-miner who was prepared to pay big money to save his friend from matrimony.  I also enjoyed The Pimienta Pancakes, a story where the most devious would-be lover won the girl.

Other stories in this collection tell of friends falling out over the same woman and in others of hardened men finding their hearts.

The language in this collection is as funny as anything I’ve read before. The Handbook of Hymen tells of two gold miners who were caught in the mountains over winter.

If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen-by-twenty foot cabin for a month. Human nature won’t stand it.

Luckily, they had a book each which by the end of winter, they’d learned by heart. However, once they returned to civilisation the pair of them became enamoured of the same widow, and which of the men do you think won her heart, the one who had the book of poetry or the one who had Herkimer’s Handbook of Indispensable Information?

One thing about O. Henry, he wasn’t particular with his racism. In this collection it was mostly the Mexicans who copped it, although black people and Native Americans were also added to the mix.

The last short story collection was The Four Million and Other Stories. This collection is set in New York  and I believe ‘The Four Million’ refer to the population of New York at the time the stories were written, and was in response to someone who had said there were only about forty people in New York at the time worth knowing. Many of the characters in this collection are from the working poor and their lives were hard. Some of the stories in this collection have a touch of the unexplainable about them. Unlike most of the stories in the previous collections, there are suicides and other unhappy endings in this collection, although there is also joy, love and happiness amongst them.

The most famous stories from this collection are The Gift of the Magi and The Furnished Room.

My favourite story was Sisters of the Golden Circle, where a bride did a favour for another bride as they ride a Rubberneck Coach around the city. I was surprised to find a lump in my throat when I finished this story. There aren’t too many writers who have the ability to make the reader feel a strong emotion from a four page story. As a romantic, I also enjoyed Mammon and the Archer and The Green Door, both of which also had happy endings.

In The Cop and the Anthem a homeless man does his best to be sent to jail for the winter. An Unfinished Story tells of a poor and starving  shop-girl who the reader knows will eventually choose a good meal with a man she despises and whatever comes next rather than starve.

This collection had all the usual twists in the tail, however this time, the racism was expanded to include Italians.

O. Henry’s own story is fascinating. The introduction in my edition says he headed off to Texas at the age of twenty where he married a rich young woman who had tuberculosis. There, he took a job in a bank in Auston but was dismissed because of an unexplained discrepancy of $1000 in his accounts. The family then moved to Houston where he became a journalist, but when he was charged with embezzlement his father-in-law posted bail and he took off for New Orleans and Honduras, leaving his wife and daughter with his in-laws. When his wife became seriously ill O Henry returned to America but she died and he went to jail. While in prison, he worked as a druggist and wrote short stories. His daughter was told he was away on business. Once he was released, he married his childhood sweetheart but by this time he was an alcoholic and she later left him. He died at the age of 47 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Putting aside the racism, sexism and stereotyping in O. Henry’s writing, I loved the playfulness of his plots, the amusing language and the often ironic twists in his short stories.

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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Deep South edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood

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Deep South is a collection of short stories from and about Tasmania, Australia, edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood. Each story is by a different author and is from a different time in Tasmania’s history. Together, the stories, which are not told chronologically, create a picture of Tasmania. It is not always pretty.

Some of the authors are quite well known Australian writers, and others were well known in their time. Others I had never heard of but am glad to have met. There are no weak links in the collection.

The following stories were the ones that hit me hardest.

The first story, Black Crows: An Episode of ‘Old Van Diemen’ by A Werner is from 1886. It is the story of a man who didn’t believe it was right to kill Aboriginals and was prepared to hang for his beliefs, although at the time killing Aboriginals was not illegal, and was actually encouraged and even considered a sport by some. This story leaves no doubt as to how devastating European settlement was to the Aboriginal population.

Nectar of the Gods is by HW Stewart and was written in 1928. It is a story of an Aboriginal community from a time before Europeans arrived, when a young man named Merriwee found and enjoyed a fermented liquid in a cider tree. The magic of Merriwee’s discovery were celebrated in corroborees year after year at the same place and season.

Death of a Ladies Man by James McQueen was written in 1985 and showed me an Australia that I recognised. In hindsight, it isn’t one that I should feel particularly proud about, although this story will probably be the one I will remember. The story is narrated by a young man whose brother, Chris, has just died. Chris was a football star, a larrakin who was loved by everyone, including their father, a tough old bugger if ever I’ve seen one. At the time of Chris’s death he was knocking about with an Aboriginal girl, soon after, there is speculation that she might have been pregnant with her and Chris’s child. The racism in this story made me cringe, because this is the Australia of my childhood. The setting felt familiar and comfortable, but also terribly, terribly wrong.

How Muster-Master Stoneman Earned His Breakfast by Price Warung (William Astley) is probably the most brutal story in the collection. It was written in 1890 and tells the story of a convict’s last day on earth before he was to have been hung for killing a bullying overseer on the road-gang he was working on. Thinking that he couldn’t be punished further, Convict Glancy escaped the morning he was to be hung to spit on the grave of the man he murdered, then returned to be hung. Unfortunately for Convict Glancy, it turned out that he could be punished further. My understanding is that this story was based on real people and their lives.

The Magistrate, written in 1930 by Roy Bridges is a romantic story of a family of wild boys, their beautiful and spirited sister, and the handsome young Police Magistrate who has been sent to capture the bushrangers. This story was more predictable than others in the collection but still enjoyable.

Preserves by Margaret Scott was written in 2000 but told a story from an earlier time, of an industrious and capable woman who could “make do with whatever lay to hand.” Mrs Zena Bromyard “was one of the best cooks in the district, famous for serving three vegetables every day for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Her picnics were legendary and her fruitcakes and sponges sure-fire winners at every show. Her jellies and jams, her chutneys and sauces, her bottled fruit and vegetables had carried off trophies all over the state.” Mrs Bromyard questions everything she believes in after a child was fatally injured and she was as helpless as anyone else to do anything to save the child.

There were stories of young men in the early days of Tasmanian settlement working (idling) for the government, gold miners and fraudsters, and convicts mutinying and sailing their ship back to England. Contemporary stories were recognisable to me as either the Australia I live in now or recent history, although with a Tasmanian flavour.

Before I finish, a note on the cover art of this book which is titled Three Truchanas children at Lake Pedder in 1971, before the flooding of Lake Pedder by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. Before 1972, Lake Pedder had been a glacial-outwash lake and was a National Park. This status was revoked by the Government and the lake flooded, although not without much protest. The unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder led to a successful campaign to save the Franklin River from damming and to the formation of the Australian Greens political party. A present-day group continue to push to have Lake Pedder drained, to let time restore the flora and fauna and to expose the unique pink quartzite sand beach below.

 

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The pink sand beach of Lake Pedder prior to 1972.

Photo: Peter Sims

Lake Pedder was flooded when I was a very small child, but I remember the outcry when the government proposed damming the Franklin River. This would all have passed me by except that I thought the cover art was beautiful and looked up the story behind it.

I would welcome a second collection of Tasmanian stories along the lines of Deep South.

 

 

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

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Stephen Orr, where have you been hiding? Somewhere in Adelaide, I’m guessing, due to the distinctly South Australian flavour of the short stories that make up Datsunland. Many thanks to Whispering Gums for bringing this book to my attention.

Stephen Orr, Datsunland (#BookReview)

The following stories were my favourites;

Dr Singh’s Despair. This story is a ripper. The title character, Dr Singh, came to Australia to work as a doctor in Coober Pedy, an outback town in South Australia, with the intention of bringing his wife and son to Australia once he settled in. (Australia has a shortage of doctors in remote and rural areas, so the Australian government offer overseas doctors working visas to fill the vacancies). What Dr Singh didn’t know in advance was that Coober Pedy was no place for him (or for any civilised person, you would think after reading this story). After a traumatic (and hilarious) three days in Coober Pedy, Dr Singh writes to the South Australian Health Commission to tell them he has returned to India and to stick their job up their jumper.

The Shot Put is a tragic account of an elderly couple in a remote farming area who are doing it tough. Their dearly loved son Tom went missing during World War 1 at Fromelles and never returned, and is presumed to be a coward. After the war the Department of Defence advise they intend publishing the Coward’s List and naming the deserters, self-mutilators and cowards, causing Tom’s parents to try to have his name removed from the list.

The One-Eyed Merchant is the story of a young boy working as riveter in a ship-building yard. I felt a physical jolt when the ending of this story was revealed.

The Adult World Opera was for me the stand-out story in the collection. I suspect the story of six-year old Jay Foster, who is neglected and mistreated by his weak mother and her no-good boyfriend will haunt me for some time to come. The author didn’t spell out how things worked out for Jay, but I felt uneasy and sad for Jay and other children in similar homes as I read this story.

Datsunland is the longest story in the collection and tells of the friendship between teenage Charlie and his music teacher at Lindisfarne College, William Dutton. Charlie’s musical talent comes to the fore as William introduces him to the blues and punk rock, but Charlie is not always ready for the experiences he seeks out. Datsunland itself is the used-car lot where Charlie’s father struggles to make a living selling cheap second-hand cars. Although I had the feeling that William had already settled for a similar numb life to Charlie’s father, there was still hope for Charlie to live a fuller life.

There is a strong religious flavour through this collection of stories. The stories are all about men and boys, many of whom are Catholic. Quite a few of the stories refer to or have characters with links to Lindisfarne College, an elite school where the boys are taught by the Christian Brothers. There are religious zealots and mad priests everywhere you look in these stories.

I liked Stephen Orr’s plain writing style, which led me clearly through a variety of emotions, from laughing at (and with) poor Dr Singh’s failure to see the funny side of things in Australia (!), to feeling horror, sympathy, pity and joy. The stories have a very Australian feel about them, but as a Victorian, the stories also felt ‘South Australian,’ which I enjoyed. I’ve been told by friends who live in SA that there is a rivalry between the Crow-Eaters and the Vics, but as a Vic, I’ve never heard of it. Possibly Goliath hadn’t heard of David before the big fight either.

I’m looking forward to working my way through this new-to-me author’s works soon.

 

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

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Too Much Happiness is a book of sad short stories by Booker winning author Alice Munro.

The first story, Dimensions, is about a young woman who visits her husband in the psychiatric ward of a prison after he murdered their three children. She lives an almost invisible life and is looking for answers which probably don’t exist. This story set the depressing tone for the collection.

The next story, Fiction, tells of a marriage breakdown. He fell in love with another woman, she moved on. Years later she meets the now adult child of the other woman, who has written a memoir of her childhood. The woman features in the memoir but the author doesn’t recognise the woman when she lines up to have her copy of the book signed.

Wenlock Edge is sad and creepy. Two young women share a room in a boarding house while one attends university and the other seeks life experiences. One of the women is being kept by a old man who would be described as a pervert if he weren’t so rich.

My favourite story was Child’s Play. It features two girls at a summer camp whose behaviour is as unexpected as it is terrible. I can’t say more without giving the plot away, but I was shocked by the outcome.

The title story, Too Much Happiness is the longest in the collection. This story was set in the 1800s and features a Russian female mathematician who lives a bohemian life. Like all of the women in this collection she doesn’t live a fairy-tale happy life either, but she had more choices than most women of her time, partly because of her education and brains, and partly because of her personality.

I expected a happier read from this book – clearly I was led astray by the title. The writing itself was lovely but the stories were too depressing for my tastes. I’ll probably read a novel by Alice Munro sometime but will know to get in truckloads of chocolate in advance so I can endure the misery of her character’s lives.

 

 

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

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Merciless Gods is a collection of short stories by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, who is best known for writing The Slap. I read and enjoyed both The Slap and Barracuda, which although occasionally brutal, are well written contemporary stories which are set in my home town of Melbourne.

I finished reading Merciless Gods some time ago, and have been dithering about whether to post a review or not. The writing in Merciless Gods is up to the author’s usual high standards, but this book did not leave me feeling good about myself. I felt squeamish and anxious reading most of these stories, many of which depict physically and emotionally violent exchanges between characters, as well as graphic (and again, sometimes violent) sex between gay men. The characters in this collection are absolutely brutal to each other.

The first story in the collection is the title story and tells of a group of friends telling each other true stories. One of the characters tells a story of revenge which left me and the other characters feeling emotionally shattered. Merciless Gods is an amazing story, but had I realised each story in the collection was more confronting than the last, I probably would have stopped reading after the second story.

Reading so many stories about unhappy, sometimes unpleasant people behaving viciously towards each other flattened me. I wish this author would show people at their best more often, rather than always at their worst.

I’ll continue reading books by Christos Tsiolkas for the quality of the writing and for my enjoyment of the familiar locations and times, but this confronting collection of stories is not for everyone. I’m prudish at the best of times and if you are too, then give this collection a miss.

 

All the Sad Young Men by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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All the Sad Young Men is a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of which were new to me.

The collection starts with The Rich Boy, which tells the story of an exceedingly rich young man with commitment issues (as we would say now). Sadly for him, this young man felt himself unable to love any of the various women who loved him due to a sense of his own superiority, and by the age of thirty, felt as if he had missed his opportunity for happiness in the form of marriage.

I’m more than a bit cynical about the plot of The Rich Boy, even though the quality of the actual writing puts this author up with the ‘greats.’ One of the other characters ought to have told this precious fellow to get over himself.

Winter Dreams was a sadder story. A poor young man made something of himself, then fell in love with an ‘It Girl.’ The ‘It Girl’ dangled the young man on a string for her own amusement until she fell in love with someone else, got married and turned into a sad frump and of course the poor young man thought he would never get over the disappointment. Again, I felt as if someone should have advised this character to give himself ten years, by which time he would probably have forgotten the girl’s name. Perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic to this character’s troubles when I was young and romantic myself, but that is such a long time ago now….

My favourite story in the collection was Rags Martin and the Pr-nce of W-les. This story has the most glamorous heroine of all time in Rags Martin, who is everything any woman could want to be, except for feeling bored with people falling in love with her. Rags is rich, clever and charismatic. When she returned to the USA after five years in Europe she pushed an old flame into the Hudson River when he annoyed her by trying to command her attention, but there is more to this old flame than immediately apparent. If anyone is interested, you can read the story here;

http://www.gutenberg.net.au/fsf/RAGS-MARTIN-JONES.html

There are a number of stories in this collection about young men who are desperate to get ahead in the world. Hot and Cold Blood is the story of a man who discovers he must be true to his own nature in order to be happy. I don’t know why this theme isn’t used more often in fiction as it seems truer than many other things authors write about.

Absolution is supposedly a forerunner to The Great Gatsby, and features a boy who realises that God is not all-seeing. The Baby Party tells the story of a group of badly behaved new parents who discover that their children mean more to them than anything else ever will again.

All of the stories in this collection are set in the Jazz Age, a time which appears to be almost unbelievably glamourous. The joys and tragedies seem greater to these characters than anyone had ever felt before, and life for these characters is all or nothing. Probably this is true of every age, but F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses the urgency of young men who are desperate to experience life better that most authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin

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Do you ever go read something so good that when you attempt to write a review, you think to yourself, who am I to make comment on this author’s work? Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin falls into that category.

Each of the stories in this collection left me feeling completely sated. I found myself finishing each story and then putting the book down to do something else while I mulled over the story I had just read for a while.

The Age of Reason was my favourite story in the collection. The main character is a solitarily-natured criminal who master-minded the theft of a priceless Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ along with some other fine art.

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The criminal uses his own brand of reasoning (threats and violence) to make other people behave as he wants them to, although he struggles to convince his own mother not to talk too much about his criminal activities. His character was formed by a stint in a Youth Detention Centre, where violence and erotica became entwined in his psyche, and by his alcoholic mother, who continues to use her son to protect her when her own behaviour isn’t acceptable. While the criminal doesn’t particularly value the stolen Rembrandt portrait as art, he believes that the woman in the painting looks as if she would be difficult to reason with.

A Song is a sad story about a young man who sings in a pub band, whose mother was a famous singer in the 1970’s. The young man hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 20 years, since he was nine years old, when he found himself in a pub where she was singing. They noticed each other and seemingly connected, although they did not speak to each other. The young man left after her song without learning if his mother recognised him or not.

The Name of the Game is another sad story. (Come to think of it, all of the stories in this collection are sad). A widow who found herself left with a failing family business and a hungry family built up the business with the intention of selling it for a better life someplace else, but her decision to sell disappointed her son who had expected to run the business himself someday.

In Famous Blue Raincoat, a teenage boy discovers a pile of old records, amongst them a record by a band which his mother and his dead aunt sang in, long before the boy was born. The band was always on the verge of enormous success, but they never quite made it. The son blindly transfers the records to CDs, telling his mother some of the songs were great and wanting to listen to them with her, without understanding that it breaks his mother’s heart to hear her dead sister’s voice again.

Who would want a Priest in the Family in this day and age? No, me neither, and this story goes exactly where you just thought it would.

The Journey tells of a woman collecting her depressed son from hospital and bringing him back to the family home to care for him. The woman’s husband is recovering from a stroke, and waiting for them at home. I felt depressed reading this story, on behalf of that poor woman.

Three Friends shows that life goes on for the living after a death. After Fergus’ mother dies, his friends come to her funeral and wake, and later collect him for a night out. They go to an all-night rave at an isolated beach, then swim in the morning. While they are swimming, Fergus and one of his friends, Mick, become filled with desire for each other, and the story finishes on the cusp of the two becoming lovers.

A Summer Job is the story of a grandmother who is desperately attached to her favourite grandson. Without going too much into the plot, this story has left me conflicted about the character’s motives, as I can’t decide if the grandson’s behaviour towards his grandmother or his mother stemmed from love or from a sense of duty.

I liked A Long Winter, the longest, and last story in this collection the least. An alcoholic mother disappears in the first snow of winter in the Pyrenees after a fight with her husband over her drinking. The son is grieving for his mother and missing his brother, who has gone to serve in the military for his two years of service. I wanted this story to have a definite end, and it didn’t.

Generally I prefer happier stories, but as I said earlier, who am I to quibble with someone who writes this well?

 

 

 

 

 

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