It won’t take the reader long to realize that the stories in The Bloody Chamber, the most famous book by the late British master Angela Carter, seem strangely familiar. In fact, each of the ten pieces in this collection is a direct descendent of a well-known fairy tale. “The Company of Wolves,” for instance, in which a vulnerable young girl travels alone through a wood infested with monstrous wolves, brings “Little Red Riding Hood” irresistibly to mind; and the lovers at the center of “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” clearly represent Beauty and the Beast. Carter is much too canny a writer to freshen up these worn-out fairy tale narratives by changing the plot: none of the stories is given a modern setting, at least not overtly, and many end with “happily ever afters” if the original versions require it. What sets the stories in The Bloody Chamber apart from the tales that inspired them is a subtler kind of magic. Carter weaves a spell with her dispassionate, often slightly ironic narrative voice, which heightens the qualities of the original fairy tales—particularly their undertones of violence and sexuality—to make familiar narratives seem suddenly oppressive and strange. In Carter’s hands, even a tale ending “happily ever after” isn’t for the faint of heart. – Andrew R. ’17
In Fortune Smiles, which won the most recent National Book Award, Adam Johnson collects six short stories that showcase both his penchant for dark, uncomfortable subject matter and his startlingly powerful ability to treat unsympathetic characters with compassion. Johnson, who has garnered laurels in the past for a novel about North Korea, repeatedly takes on apparently unredeemable perspectives—a virtual-reality-obsessed programmer in Palo Alto, a reclusive pedophile with a traumatic past, a retired and unrepentant East German prison warden—and convinces the reader to replace at least some disgust with sympathy. Certain stories, like “Interesting Facts” (about a raging cancer sufferer) and “Hurricanes Anonymous” (about a displaced delivery man in Louisiana in 2005), miss the magic ratio of darkness to compassion and spoil the effect. But then you get a piece like “Fortune Smiles,” in which Johnson turns his focus back toward North Korea to explore the lives of two defectors to South Korea and their near-suicidal impulse to re-defect back into the North. This story closes the collection, cementing the book’s diverse but complimentary themes: the irrationality of obsession, the persistence of pain, and, most importantly, the essential humanness of everyone, even those we don’t understand.
One character stands out above all the rest in Elizabeth McCracken’s flamboyant collection of short stories: Aunt Helen Beck, an imposing and imperious wanderer who moves from stranger’s home to stranger’s home, masquerading as a long-lost relative until she is kicked back out onto the street. Judging by the vast array of circus sideshow performers, eccentric tattoo artists, and itinerant poets with handlebar mustaches on display in this collection, colorful characters are McCracken’s forte, and the supporting casts of each of the nine stories included here are really what give the collection its drive. Sometimes, as in the case of “Mercedes Kane” (an unsatisfying sketch about a middle-aged former child genius), the author’s tendency to prioritize characters over plot becomes tiresome; often, as with Aunt Helen Beck, the tradeoff is entirely worth it. Overall, just as with so many other short-story collections, the humorous genius of a few pieces is marred by their less impressive neighbors, and, like Aunt Helen Beck, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry is best picked up, briefly enjoyed, and then cast away once more.
Oh the moon made me laugh and made me cry with hundreds of pages that flew by (literally, some pages didn’t have words on them). The book is relatable, fun, and of course, mindblowing. The frankness of the stories gave me pause, waking me up from the banality of college applications. In one story, a woman who is ALL LEGS (literally) takes control of her destiny and runs away from her repetitive life. In another, two people who are in love are stuck in separate snowglobes — whatever shall they do? I appreciated Charlyne Yi’s randomness (like when an old lady gives birth to a giant on the second page), and her writing made me feel like she actually understood me and my optimistic cynicism (people say teenagers are the cross section of idealistic and intelligent/aware). Reading these short stories was an adventure in grasping odd metaphors, suspending disbelief, and finding the beauty of life.
I was almost addicted, inhaling this collection of dark short stories at an alarmingly fast pace. George Saunders creates a world in which advertising and persuasion overcome rational thought – his stories read like television commercials, slowly convincing the reader that the grotesque and brutal scenes are real. One short story begins with a polar bear lamenting his doomed existence to repeat the same patterns each day (he lives in a advertising scene). Each day he steals Cheetos from an igloo and is subsequently caught; afterwards, the owner of the igloo swings an ax to the polar bear’s head, and the day ends. Unsurprisingly, the polar bear engages in existential discussion and falls down the wormhole of philosophy. What a brilliant mix of realism and complete absurdism, and of course, it’s great satire. Would highly recommend to anyone looking for some grim reality mixed with a dosage of humor and science fiction.
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, a sort of novel-in-stories that unflinchingly paints a portrait of Native American life in the modern world, opens with a beautifully elaborate family tree: the names get progressively more Catholic, the adoptions and marriages and remarriages more convoluted, as the generations pass. It’s a fitting way to begin this collection. Almost every person on the tree is featured either as a narrator or as a protagonist of one of the stories, but in my mind the three members of the oldest generation mentioned are the real heroes of Love Medicine. The lives of Nector Kashpaw (introduced in “Wild Geese” as a brash young tribesman), his future wife Marie Lazarre (still a teenager in “Saint Marie”), and their sometime ally Lulu Lamartine (who comes of age in “The Island”) are chronicled in full, from adolescence to old age, and it’s their obsessions and fatal flaws that ultimately give the book wings. Love Medicine has a rocky start: its younger characters, not nearly as complex or engaging as their grandparents, open the collection in a less-than-impressive introductory sequence. But the later stories are beautifully enough rendered to do their subject, the Ojibwe nation, proud.
Sometimes being forgotten is almost an honor in the literary world. It’s an invitation to be rediscovered decades after one’s death, then to enjoy revival as a cult favorite before breaking triumphantly back out into the mainstream market. When I read my first Malachi Whitaker short story, “Landlord of the Crystal Fountain,” I was sure I’d stumbled upon one of these forgotten masters: despite the near-impossibility of finding any of her work, which hasn’t been collected since the mid-1980s, the story’s flowing language (not to mention its intriguing title) indicated that Whitaker’s work deserves much more attention than it’s been given. The Crystal Fountain and Other Stories is one of very few collections by Whitaker that’s still in circulation, so I sought it out and devoured all its stories over the course of a few days, searching for the quality that had made the title story so appealing. What a disappointment to discover that the other stories were nearly indistinguishable in their plots: rural Britain, lonely working-class woman, innocent dreams developed for several pages then suddenly crushed. That’s not to say the stories weren’t enjoyable, but, unlike “Landlord of the Crystal Fountain,” they weren’t quite worth the effort taken to procure them. – Andrew R. ’17
You’ve probably heard of O. Henry, the early twentieth-century American author of countless humorous short stories. And the phrase “cabbages and kings” will ring a bell to anyone who’s familiar with Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poems. (One of his most famous, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” promises to tell the story of “shoes and ships and sealing-wax / And cabbages and kings.”) But you’ve almost certainly never heard them in combination, since Henry’s collection of closely interrelated short stories has not had nearly as much staying power since its 1904 publication as, for instance, “The Ransom of Red Chief” or “The Gift of the Magi” From barbers and tintypists (a hopelessly outdated profession) to diplomats and politicians, ninety percent of the characters populating the stories’ setting, a fictional South American village called Coralio, are American; Henry seeks to satirize supposedly autonomous twentieth-century Caribbean states, whose kings, in reality, had about as much power as cabbages. Cabbages and Kings, like the nonsensical poem that inspired it, doesn’t have much to offer beyond the mildly amusing nonsense of its stories, but any O. Henry fans are still welcome to seek it out on the Harker Library’s Overdrive page in the Project Gutenberg section. – Andrew R. ’17
Four is a collection of several short stories that help clarify the background of the character Four in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. This book has several sections that begin with his Choosing Ceremony and end a short while after he meets Tris. I found this an intriguing read and thought it was nice for a quick read. I would recommend this to anyone who read and enjoyed the Divergent series. – Catherine H. ’17
In this collection of short stories featuring Parker Pyne, one of Christie’s lesser-known detectives, various customers answer a mysterious ad in the newspaper: “Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.” After solving a number of cases with ease (and suffering one embarrassing defeat), he goes on a long trip around the Mediterranean, encountering a mad noblewoman, an impoverished archaeologist, and—of course—a few murders. Mr. Pyne proves to be a complex character, but his motives remain unclear throughout the collection. Why, exactly, does he consent to help such a wide range of customers? Why does one story portray him as generous and kind, when in the next he shows a total lack of empathy? And how has he come to understand the human mind so fully that he can predict a crime before it even occurs? A full-length novel, perhaps, could answer these questions, but the short story format just left me wanting more details. Nevertheless, any fan of Christie’s novels should read this collection and meet the mysterious, calculating man known as Mr. Parker Pyne. – Andrew R. ‘17