Istanbul Noir edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler
Ok, do you all know about Akashic Books City Noir series? So far there are sixty-nine titles (I think I counted that correctly)-- each is an anthology of noir short stories, taking place in a specific location, with the stories written by authors who are from there or live there, or write about the city a lot. Many of the volumes are international--if I counted correctly, 24 of the currently-out titles are international, with locations ranging from Paris to Manila, Kingston to St. Petersburg, Tehran to Copenhagen. (There are also 3 titles coming out this summer-- Providence, Beirut, and Marseille-- and another 21 that have been announced. Of the 24 that aren't out yet, 16 are international.)
I love this series so hard. It's the best of armchair travel, because you're going into neighborhoods and situations you don't usually get (because, well, noir). As the authors are mostly local, or write like a local, the city is the setting, and it's a character that links the stories, but there's no expositional tour guide voice that can run through books that take place in a location the readership might not know very well. There's just the city and culture in the background and part of the story, which in a way is more enlightening. Between all the stories, you usually get a wide range of neighborhoods, people, and economic status--and not a lot of the touristy stuff we usually see. While the concept itself is diverse, there's also tremendous diversity within each volume. Also, with the international ones, you get to read a lot of authors that haven't published in English before, or that you might not otherwise have come across.
So, as much as I read and love this series, I haven't reviewed it yet because, well, Istanbul Noir is the only one I've actually finished. Not because the others aren't good, but they're short stories! So I tend to dip in and out of the collections, and then they're due back at the library, and so I'll return it and pick up a new city. I've found short stories are the best bus reading, because that's usually how long I have. I haven't really gotten into short stories before, but I think my friend and co-worker Megan put a finger on it when she explained why she doesn't like them--they're too short for her to really connect to and like a character. That's the best part about noir--you're not really supposed to like most of these people.
So! If you're looking for some great short stories by authors you may not know, or want a new look at a city you love, or a very different introduction to one you've never been to, this series is for you.
Also, what cities do you wish they covered? Personally, I'm crossing my fingers for Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong (and maybe a separate Kowloon volume, like they split up the boroughs of New York City?), Cape Town, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Karachi.
Book Provided by... my local library
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Blog: Biblio File (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
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Istanbul Noir edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler
Blog: Original Content (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
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Last Friday in my weekly goals and objectives post, I wrote about planning to submit a manuscript to a journal that is only open for submissions for part of each month. It opens on the 1st and closes when it reaches 200 submissions. That's the number of submissions the staff feels it can deal with in a month.
As it turned out, yesterday was the 1st. So I planned to submit yesterday or today. I was on the road most of yesterday, worked on completing the revision of a chapter today, and when I went to submit the manuscript in question, maybe ten minutes ago, the journal was already closed to submissions. It reached it's 200 mark in less than 48 hours.
Clearly I should have rearranged my time and tried submitting this morning. Or last night after getting back from a day trip. Or yesterday morning before I got on the road at 8:30.
I did not schedule my time correctly. And, you know, I did have a feeling I wouldn't have more than a couple of days to do this.
Blog: Becky's Book Reviews (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
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sign-up post) (my list of 52) (challenge hosted by Bibliophilopolis)
- Ace Diamonds "The Grey Woman" by Elizabeth Gaskell from The Grey Woman and Other Stories
- 3 Hearts "At Five O'Clock in the Morning" by L.M. Montgomery from Short Stories 1905-1906
- 10 Diamonds "Mr. Cosway and the Landlady" by Wilkie Collins from Little Novels
- Jack Spades "A Day At Niagara" by Mark Twain from Complete Short Stories
- Premise/Plot: Readers learn the story of Anna Scherer and how she became "The Grey Woman." It's a story revealed through Anna's own letter to her daughter, a letter that has been passed down through the generations. The narrators of the story take shelter during a rain storm, see a portrait, ask about it, and are given a letter. In this letter, she's confessing to her daughter--telling her the whole truth. The story has a very gothic feel to it. This is a great read!
- Premise/Plot: Murray lacks tact but gets the girl--most likely--anyway. I can't say that this story wowed me. It's not one of L.M. Montgomery's better short stories--there are so many that are GREAT. It's a mistaken identity, miscommunication, courtship story.
THE guests would have enjoyed their visit to Sir Peter's country house—but for Mr. Cosway. And to make matters worse, it was not Mr. Cosway but the guests who were to blame. They repeated the old story of Adam and Eve, on a larger scale. The women were the first sinners; and the men were demoralized by the women.
- Premise/Plot: Readers learn of an unpleasant house party. The guests have not had a happy stay particularly. Soon EVERYONE just *has* to know the history of Mr. Cosway. What has happened in his past? There has to be some reason, some explanation for his strange-to-them behavior. The mystery is solved when a news story is shared. The story in the paper is about a boat accident: two women and a man have drowned. When Mr. Cosgrave learns the names, well, he gets REALLY excited: almost jubilant. Mr. Cosgrave's friend later tells the guests why. You see, Mr. Cosgrave as a younger man was TRICKED into marrying a landlady. The story is cleverly told. I enjoyed it.
NIAGARA FALLS is a most enjoyable place of resort. The hotels are excellent, and the prices not at all exorbitant. The opportunities for fishing are not surpassed in the country; in fact, they are not even equaled elsewhere. Because, in other localities, certain places in the streams are much better than others; but at Niagara one place is just as good as another, for the reason that the fish do not bite anywhere, and so there is no use in your walking five miles to fish, when you can depend on being just as unsuccessful nearer home. The advantages of this state of things have never heretofore been properly placed before the public.
When you start out to "do" the Falls you first drive down about a mile, and pay a small sum for the privilege of looking down from a precipice into the narrowest part of the Niagara river. A rail- way "cut" through a hill would be as comely if it had the angry river tumbling and foaming through its bottom. You can descend a staircase here a hundred and fifty feet down, and stand at the edge of the water. After you have done it, you will wonder why you did it; but you will then be too late.
- Premise/Plot: This is a comic piece. The narrator is relating to the reader his experiences at Niagra Falls. One thing after another after another leads him to regret his visit
Here I followed instructions, and divested myself of all my clothing, and put on a waterproof jacket and overalls. This costume is picturesque, but not beautiful. A guide, similarly dressed, led the way down a flight of winding stairs, which wound and wound, and still kept on winding long after the thing ceased to be a novelty, and then terminated long before it had begun to be a pleasure. We were then well down under the precipice, but still considerably above the level of the river. We now began to creep along flimsy bridges of a single plank, our persons shielded from destruction by a crazy wooden railing, to which I clung with both hands-- not because I was afraid, but because I wanted to. Presently the descent became steeper, and the bridge flimsier, and sprays from the American Fall began to rain down on us in fast increasing sheets that soon became blinding, and after that our progress was mostly in the nature of groping.
- But the worst he brings upon himself in a way. He starts jabbering complete nonsense to three different "Native Americans" in the gift shop, I believe. The people dressed up as Indians, readers learn, are not the real deal. (They are all Irish.) And they don't appreciate his ridiculousness. You can't really blame them for their response, perhaps.
"Is the Wawhoo-Wang-Wang of the Whack-a-Whack happy? Does the great Speckled Thunder sigh for the warpath, or is his heart contented with dreaming of the dusky maiden, the Pride of the Forest? Does the mighty Sachem yearn to drink the blood of his enemies, or is he satisfied to make bead reticules for the pappooses of the paleface? Speak, sublime relic of bygone grandeur-- venerable ruin, speak!'
© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews Add a Comment
Blog: The Mumpsimus (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: aesthetics, Chekhov, fiction, Norton Critical Edition, Russia, short stories, translation, Add a tag
My name is Matthew and I am a Norton Critical Edition addict.
Hardly a term has gone by without my assigning students at least one NCE, both when I was a high school teacher and especially now that I'm teaching college students. (This term, it's The Red Badge of Courage.) I have been known to change syllabi each term just to try out new NCEs with students. I have bought NCEs for myself even of books that I already owned in multiple other editions. I have all four editions of the NCE of Heart of Darkness because the changes between them fascinate me. (I've been meaning to write a blog post or essay of some sort about those changes. I'll get to it one day.)
Anton Chekhov is my favorite writer, a writer whose work I've been reading and thinking about for all of my adult life. The Norton Critical Editions of Chekhov's stories and plays published in the late 1970s remained unchanged until Laurence Senelick's Selected Plays came out in 2004, and then, finally, last year Cathy Popkin's Selected Stories. Senelick's collection is good, and probably all that the average reader needs, though I'm more partial to Senelick's true masterpiece, the Complete Plays, which is awe-inspiring.
Popkin's Selected Stories is something more again, and easily the best single-volume collection of Chekhov in English. This is the place to start if you've never read Chekhov, and it's a great resource even for seasoned Chekhovians. I'll go further than that, actually: Because of the critical apparatus, this is a great resource for anyone interested in fiction, translation, and/or writing; and it is one of the most interesting Norton Critical Editions I know, almost as impressive as my favorite NCEs, Things Fall Apart and The English Bible.
Popkin made the interesting and valuable choice to not only include stories from multiple translators (including new commissions), but to foreground the act of translation by including helpful descriptions of each translator's approach and methodology, as well as short passages from multiple stories in numerous translations for comparison:
|sample of the Comparison Passages section|
Further, Popkin frequently offers a perspective on the translation of an individual story in the first footnote for it, and sometimes in subsequent footnotes that point out particular choices the translator made.
The foregrounding of translation allows Popkin to bring in essays in the critical section that focus on Chekhov as a stylist, something Ralph Matlaw, editor of the previous edition, specifically avoided because he thought it made no sense to talk about "since the subtleties of Chekhov's style are lost in translation." Popkin's contention is that this no longer needs to be true, if it ever was.
What we have here, then, is not only a book of Chekhov stories plus some biographical and critical material, but a book about aesthetics and writing. One of the critical disputes that Popkin highlights, both in her introduction and in her selection of essays, is a longstanding one between critics who believe every detail in the stories has a particular purpose and function, and critics who believe that Chekhov's art (and philosophy) resides in the very extraneousness and randomness of some of his details. There is, as Popkin notes, no solution to this question, and plenty of readers (I'm one of them) believe that in a certain way both interpretations can be correct — but the value here is that Popkin is able to make the critical dispute one that is not only about Chekhov, but about writing, realism, and the reader's experience of the text. Attentive readers of this Selected Stories will thus not only gain knowledge of Chekhov's work, but will also participate in the exploration of aesthetics: the aesthetics of the stories as well as the aesthetics of translation.
Inevitably, I have one complaint and a few quibbles. The complaint is that the physical book is terribly bound — the binding of my copy broke when I opened it, and continued to break whenever I opened to anything in the middle of the book. No pages have yet fallen out, but they could soon. This is unusual for a Norton book — The English Bible is huge and only one year older than Selected Stories and its bindings (2 big volumes) are very strong; my copy of the 1979 NCE of Chekhov's stories, purchased at the earliest 15 years ago, seems unbreakable. I hope the problem with this new book is an anomaly.
My quibbles are purely those of anyone who has their own particular favorites among Chekhoviana. I detest Ronald Hingley's imperialist atrocities of translations, and though I know they're necessary for this volume because they offer such stark contrast to other translations, why why why did Popkin have to include Hingley's translation of perhaps my favorite Chekhov story, "Gusev"?! At least she could have included somebody — anybody! — else's translation alongside it. (Indeed, I think it would have been helpful for the book to choose one complete story to offer in multiple translations. "Gusev" is probably too long, but Chekhov wrote a number of quite short stories that have been translated numerous times.)
The selection of stories in this edition is almost completely superior to Matlaw's, but it's unfortunate to lose the 1886 story "Dreams", which seems to me a perfect encapsulation of Chekhov's style between his early humorous sketches and his later, longer stories ... but it's easily available elsewhere.
One significant improvement Popkin makes over Matlaw's previous edition is the inclusion of some of Chekhov's longer stories, most significantly "Ward No. 6" and "In the Ravine", two of his most important works. The book is already almost 700 pages, so obviously novellas such as "My Life" and "The Steppe" — hugely important, original, difficult, complex, breathtaking works — wouldn't fit without bumping out a lot of other worthwhile material, but still I pine. Perhaps Selected Stories will be successful enough that Norton will consider a Critical Edition called Chekhov's Novellas...
Finally, it might have been nice to include something on the adaptation of Chekhov's stories to theatre, film, and television — though of course his plays are more frequently adapted, some of the better adaptations are of the short stories, and there's been at least a little bit of critical attention to that. Adaptation is another form of translation, and it would have been interesting to consider that further within the frame that Popkin set up.
But really, these are the inevitable, unimportant quibbles of the sort that any anthology causes in a reader familiar with the territory. Popkin's edition of the Selected Stories is a book to celebrate and savor, and it gets so many things right that it is churlish to complain about any of it. Even the cover is a smart, appropriate choice: a painting by Chekhov's friend Isaac Levitan.
This book is clearly the result of lots of love for Chekhov, and as such I can only love it back. Add a Comment
Blog: Becky's Book Reviews (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
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sign-up post) (my list of 52) (challenge hosted by Bibliophilopolis)
- 6 Spades "The Spot of Art" by P.G. Wodehouse from Very Good, Jeeves
- Queen Clubs "Face Value" by Karen Joy Fowler from Alien Contact
- Queen Diamonds "Mr. Lismore and the Widow" by Wilkie Collins from Little Novels
- 4 Hearts "Aunt Susanna's Birthday Celebration" by L.M. Montgomery from Short Stories 1905-1906
"Spot of Art" by P.G. Wodehouse (1929, from Very Good, Jeeves 1930)
- Premise/Plot: Bertram Wooster cancels his scheduled yachting trip with Aunt Dahlia so that he can stay close-to-home and woo the oh-so-lovely Gwladys who is an artist. Aunt Dahlia predicts that by the time the trip occurs, Bertie will have lost his lady love, and be more than ready to vacation. Was Aunt Dahlia's prediction spot on?! Yes and no! Does he lose Gwladys?! Yes. To his rival, another artist. But not just ANY artist. Gwladys invited Mr. Pim to view the portrait of Wooster which she'd just finished. (Jeeves HATES the "spot of art" hanging on the wall). But on his way to the flat, Mr. Pim gets run over. But not just run over by anyone, but by Gwladys herself. Mr. Pim will spend WEEKS living at Wooster's flat while he recuperates. Mr. Pim not wanting his own family to know that Gwladys, the woman he's in love with, is the one who run him down, tells his family that Bertie did it! Mr. Pim's brother-in-law, who owns a soup shop, comes to beat him up and/or sue him. But during their confrontation, he slips on a golf ball. So now Bertie has TWO unwanted invalid guests. He flees to the continent--to Paris--with strict instructions to Jeeves. When he returns weeks later--before he even sees Jeeves or learns the latest--he sees his face, his portrait, ADVERTISING SOUP. This poster is EVERYWHERE. He then learns that Gwladys is engaged to Mr. Pim, and that the copyright to the portrait has been given to this soup-shop-owner to appease him. Wooster is horribly upset!!! And he needs a vacation!!! Turns out, the yachting trip is JUST what he needs...and it's been conveniently postponed because of illness. So Aunt Dahlia was right, for the most part!!!
- Premise/Plot: Taki and Hesper are a xenologist and a poet on an alien planet studying the menes. Hesper is not coping well to say the least. Though she wanted to go with him at first, though she was at first eager to learn firsthand about the menes, she is now miserable and depressed. She's lost herself... Taki has never really understood Hesper. He's wanted to. He's tried. He's hoped. Hoped that Hesper at one time really did love him. Hoped that Hesper would love him again. But. He's clueless in many ways. Taki is unable to communicate effectively with Hesper and the menes. There is a strangeness to this story. I'm not sure I "liked" it overall. But it is very science fiction-y.
"Mr. Lismore and the Widow" by Wilkie Collins from Little Novels
- Premise/Plot: Mr. Lismore is struggling financially. He is facing ruin in a month or two if his ship doesn't come in. An elderly widow whom he rescued from a fire a handful of years before wants to help him out. If his ship doesn't come in before his debts are due, the two will marry. She is quite rich. He is hesitant but willing. The two will leave England after the marriage and live abroad. She wants him to be completely honest with her and let her know if he should find himself falling in love with another woman. He tells her one day that there was a beautiful young woman at an art gallery that caught his eye. She makes him promise to bring her home the next time he sees her. She wants to meet her, talk with her. He is puzzled but agrees... I won't spoil the twist. This is an unusual story, but, then again it is Wilkie Collins!
- Premise/Plot Aunt Susanna is chatting with someone--Nora May. The story uses "you" throughout, so it is easy to feel that Aunt Susanna is talking directly to you. She's got a story to tell you about Anne Douglas, a teacher, and her lover, Gilbert Martin. Anne and Gilbert were "both pretty proud and sperrited and high-strung." The two quarreled and put off their marriage. Both left town. Anne still loves Gilbert. Gilbert still loves Anne. Both confide in Susannah. The letters arrive on her birthday--or near her birthday--and she's inspired to meddle. She sends Gilbert's letter to Anne. It's a letter confessing how much he still loves Anne. And she sends Anne's letter to Gilbert. Again, it's a letter professing how much she still loves Gilbert. The two are reunited and very grateful for "Aunt Susannah." It concludes:
Those two young creatures have learned their lesson. You'd better take it to heart too, Nora May. It's less trouble to learn it at second hand. Don't you ever quarrel with your real beau--it don't matter about the sham ones, of course. Don't take offence at trifles or listen to what other people tell you about him--outsiders, that is, that want to make mischief. What you think about him is of more importance than what they do. To be sure, you're too young yet to be thinking of such things at all. But just mind what old Aunt Susanna told you when your time comes.© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews Add a Comment
Blog: Becky's Book Reviews (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: 1905, 1906, adult fiction, books reviewed in 2015, classics, classics read in 2015, L.M. Montgomery, short stories, Add a tag
There are thirty-one short stories in this L.M. Montgomery collection. There are some great stories within this collection. There are some not-so-great stories within this collection. The quality definitely varies story to story. But if you already love L.M. Montgomery, it's well worth reading. If you're never read her, however, this may not be the best introduction. True, you'd probably find something to like, to enjoy, maybe even love. But would it persuade you to seek out EVERYTHING she's ever written because she's oh-so-amazing?! Probably not. It's good to keep in mind that these short stories were published several years before her novels. (Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908).
There are two stories that are tied for being my favorite-favorite in this collection: "Aunt Susanna's Birthday Celebration" and "The Understanding of Sister Sara." Both stories are about lovers' quarrels being resolved with a little outside help.
Previous short story collections I've reviewed:
- L.M. Montgomery Short Stories, 1896-1901. L.M. Montgomery. 142 pages.
- Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories, 1902-1903. L.M. Montgomery. 216 pages.
- L.M. Montgomery Short Stories, 1904. L.M. Montgomery. Dodo Press. 144 pages.
- A Correspondence and a Climax
- An Adventure On Island Rock
- At Five O'Clock in the Morning
- Aunt Susanna's Birthday Celebration
- Bertie's New Year
- Between the Hill and the Valley
- Clorinda's Gifts
- Cyrilla's Inspiration
- Dorinda's Desperate Deed
- Her Own People
- Ida's New Year Cake
- In the Old Valley
- Jane Lavinia
- Mackereling Out in the Gulf
- Millicent's Double
- The Blue North Room
- The Christmas Surprise at Enderly Road
- The Dissipation of Miss Ponsonby
- The Falsoms' Christmas Dinner
- The Fraser Scholarship
- The Girl at the Gate
- The Light on the Big Dipper
- The Prodigal Brother
- The Redemption of John Churchill
- The Schoolmaster's Letters
- The Understanding of Sister Sara
- The Unforgotten One
- The Wooing of Bessy
- Their Girl Josie
- When Jack and Jill Took a Hand
- When Jack and Jill Took a Hand
- The Light on the Big Dipper
- The Understanding of Sister Sara
- The Schoolmaster's Letter
- Jane Lavinia
Blog: Perpetually Adolescent (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: Book Reviews - Fiction, book review, Books, Crime Fiction, George Pelecanos, short stories, the martini shot, the wire, Treme, Add a tag
This is George Pelecanos’s first collection of short stories and once again demonstrates his consummate class, not just as a crime writer, but a writer. The title piece is the longest of the collection but Pelecanos saves it for last. The preceding stories are a blend of what makes Pelecanos great. Stories about the street, […]Add a Comment
Blog: Read Roger - The Horn Book editor's rants and raves (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: Horn Book Magazine, Recommended Books, Reviews, Reviews of the Week, fiction, hbmnov14, hbmnov14revs, holiday high notes, short stories, YA, Add a tag
My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories
edited by Stephanie Perkins
High School St. Martin’s Griffin 323 pp.
10/14 978-1-250-05930-7 $18.99 g
e-book ed. 978-1-4668-6389-7 $9.99
Holiday romance is the connecting link for the twelve tales included in this highly enjoyable anthology by a dozen well-known young adult authors, including Rainbow Rowell, Matt de la Peña, David Levithan, Gayle Forman, Laini Taylor, and Stephanie Perkins. The short stories feature teen protagonists of different races, sexual identities, and ethnicities confronting various obstacles and insecurities in their pursuit of new love amidst celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, New Year’s, and even Krampuslauf. And in keeping with the spirit of the season, the eclectic collection of stories — some fantastical, some realistic — all end with hopeful, if not always happy, endings.
From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.Add a Comment
Blog: A Year of Reading (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: ABC, short stories, Add a tag
Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters
by Oliver Jeffers
Philomel Books, 2014
Brain Pickings' Best Children's Books of 2014 strikes again. An ABC book like no other. Had to own it.
We are going to be studying narrative after the winter break, and I'm thinking that these very very short stories for each of the letter of the alphabet might make marvelous mentor texts. Character, setting, problem, solution...all in under 100 words!
Whether or not we could create our own alphabet that, like Jeffers', has stories that stand alone AND cross-reference each other might be a bit tricky.
Who am I kidding? Make that more than a bit tricky!
Add a Comment
Blog: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: 2014, Book Smugglers, Book Smugglers Publishing, fairy tale retellings, Kate Hall, reviews, short stories, Add a tag
An astronomer and his wife have a daughter, Minka. Minka's parents go on scientific expeditions; during one, when Minka is six, her mother gets ill and dies.
Afterwords, her father is very protective of her, including his insistence that Minka not become an astronomer.
When Minka turns twelve, her father gets her the types of gifts he thinks a girl would want and should want.
Needless to say, they are not the types of things one girl -- his girl -- his daughter, Minka -- wants.
Minka decides to prove him wrong, and gets some help from the North Wind.
The Good: All the good things! First, I adore the Book Smugglers so was eager to read one of the short stories they were publishing. Second, I adore fairytale retellings and reinventions. Third, I love short stories in part because it's so nice to be able to sit down and finish a story in one seating.
Of course, none of those things are what makes this particular short story a terrific story. What makes The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind fabulous is the writing. Here is Minka, following the disappointing birthday gifts: "Minka leaned on her windowsill and wiped her eyes. Her stomach churned, bitter, and even when she heard her father call her name softly through the door, she let her angry silence answer for her."
The North Wind comes along, and both tempts and encourages Minka to leave her home, alone, at night, into the dark and the cold, in order to find a mystery comet before her father does.
Even for a short story that is a retelling, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say, that the North Wind is not what he appears to be. And that Minka has to find her own strength and courage to move forward.
What I can say, without spoiling, is that I liked Minka's desire to be an astronomer and that it was shown to be complicated. Even before her mother's death, she's described as a girl who loves geometry and solving puzzles; a gift of a telescope from her father helps her in the days after her mother's death. Her father's not wanting her to be an astronomer is based, in part, in not believing a child really knows what she wants to do with her life, and also in that it's not appropriate for a young girl, but also, just as importantly, in not wanting to lose his daughter. That all these things are shown, so that the father is never portrayed as a villain, and are shown in so few words, is one reason why I love short stories.
Kate Hall knows how to use words, and more importantly, knows how to make them count.
One last word, one last confession: the North Wind was scary.
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy Add a Comment
Blog: Writer's Digest Questions and Quandaries (Login to Add to MyJacketFlap)
JacketFlap tags: Excerpts, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, getting started, short stories, writing basics, Add a tag
Sometimes, as a writer, it’s difficult to think about large, overarching goals when you’re working on a project or planning to start on something new. Thinking, “I’m going to write a novel and have it completed by XX date,” is ambitious. And maybe it’s too much of a reach.
Instead, develop a plan. Write in chunks. Write sections of your novel or story that you find more interesting than others. Challenge yourself, but make your goals and expectations reasonable and attainable, because it will make the payoff satisfying.
Below is an excerpt from our go-to guide, Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction. The selected portion will help you develop a plan to start writing immediately and turn writing into a habit, rather than a chore or an exercise. The entire book will assist you with whatever you’re currently writing: flash fiction, a short story, a novel, or an epic trilogy. It features advice and instruction from best-selling authors and writing experts like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Hallie Ephron, N.M. Kelby, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass, plus a foreword by James Scott Bell.
Are you writing or putting the finishing touches on a short story? Consider entering it into Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Story Competition, where the winner will receive $3,000 in cash and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference! This year, all entrants will also receive a special pass to attend a live webinar conducted by award-winning author Jacob Appel. Hurry, though: The deadline is December 15!
“So, what do you do?” asks the fellow dad at the soccer match, glancing over at you while he keeps an eye on his daughter, the star forward.
“I’m a writer,” you announce proudly.
“That’s fascinating! Anything I would recognize?” he asks, while you both cheer a save by your team’s goalie.
“Not yet,” you admit. “I haven’t had much luck yet in getting published.” There is a pause while he makes a sympathetic-sounding cluck. “Actually, I haven’t been writing much lately at all,” you continue. “Being home with the kids takes so much of my energy that by the time they’re in bed at the end of the day all I want to do is watch television. Plus, writing is so discouraging when you can’t get someone to even look at your work.”
There is a beat while he processes this. “But, you’re a writer, right? How can you be a writer without actually writing?”
This scene may cause you to chuckle with recognition or possibly to hang your head in shame. Real writers write. Successful writers find the time every day to hone their craft and meet their writing obligations—whether those obligations are external (from editors) or internal (from an incontestable desire to write). What usually separates good writers from bad ones (and often, published writers from unpublished ones) is a strong work habit. That’s it. That’s the big secret. Real writers work hard. In fact, most work ridiculously hard.
Professional writers know there’s nothing like a looming deadline to make them focus on their work. In fact, the real problem for beginning writers is usually not scrambling to meet a deadline, but simply organizing their time efficiently enough to find time to write at a productive pace. All writers feel this way from time to time. As other commitments encroach on our days, writing is often pushed aside like an unpleasant chore.
Accomplishing your writing goals requires making a writing plan, which is a time schedule that lists what you need to do and when.
Choose to Write
Everybody on the planet has the same amount of time every day. How we choose to use that time makes some of us writers and others of us short-order cooks. If you are a short-order cook who wants to write, however, you should probably take a bit of time to think about how you use your time.
Sandra Felton, who has written more than a dozen books on how to get organized, including Neat Mom, Messie Kids, and The New Messies Manual, points to prioritizing and dedication as helpful organizational tools for writers. “I think the whole answer is focus,” she says. “I think what focus means is you have to decide what you want to do and lob off other stuff that you also want to do. Because you want to write more.”
Note that the choice is not between writing and doing something else that you don’t want to do. The choice is among a nearly overwhelming array of things that seem appealing: checking in with your friends on Facebook, reading for pleasure, or having people over for dinner. Then there’s going to movies and the theater and the opera and family get-togethers and on trips and watching way too much television. Sometimes people would even rather do laundry and dishes than write. (All writers have days like that, but if that’s your constant M.O., you may wish to rethink a literary vocation.) Faced with so many options, people tend to choose too many and feel like they’re short of time.
Some people actually can use stray snippets of free time to write, penning novels on the back of envelopes while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. If they have ten minutes between helping a child with homework and driving her to flute lessons, they use those ten precious minutes to write or polish a small chunk of prose. Such people are the envy of the rest of us. For the rest of us, writing for publication requires larger pieces of time to research, ponder, draft, rewrite, and polish.
Make Writing a Habit
Finding writing time requires a modicum of organization, but using it productively demands dedication. The theme of virtually every article about getting organized to write is straightforward: Just do it. Wanting to write and writing itself are cousins, not identical twins. Psychological research indicates that writing every day, whether your muse is whispering in your ear or has deserted you, produces not only more writing but also more ideas for future writing.
The writing habit, like the exercise habit, is its own reward. When you don’t do it, you feel as if you’re cheating yourself. Real writers don’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike before they put fingers to keyboard; they put fingers to keyboard and know that somewhere during those hours they will discover small nuggets of inspiration. The fingers-to-keyboard, butt-in-the-chair pose is like exercise for the writer. In a way, this is just like real runners who pound the pavement or the treadmill in all weather, whether they are busy with work or on vacation. Like physical exercise, writing is often not enjoyable while you’re doing it, though occasionally an endorphin or two will spark and the serotonin does its thing. Most of the time, though, writing is just a matter of discipline, plain and simple. Discipline comes more easily to some people than to others, but it is certainly a skill that can be cultivated.
“The only thing I can tell you I do that’s inviolate is when I have to write, I get up in the morning and literally go straight to the typewriter,” says Stephanie Culp, who has written books on organization and time management. “Any little distraction that takes me away from my desk kills it. When I’m writing something large, it takes about three fitful days, and then I’m in the rhythm of it, and I write it. I can still write a book in three weeks.”
Here are some tips for getting into a writing habit.
- Start by setting aside an hour or a half hour every day to write.
- Or make a goal to write a set number of words each day.
- Try to write at the same time every day so it will feel peculiar to do something else at that time.
- Write even if you feel uninspired, even if you don’t feel ready to write. If you want to be a writer, you must write.
Your Writing Plan
Often, getting started on a writing project is the hardest part. Most writing jobs, however, can be viewed as a sequence of doable tasks that follow the same general path from beginning to end. If you accomplish each task in order, you can follow the plan to a finished piece. The more you write, the more you will be able to anticipate how much time a particular project will take you.
The planning guidelines below help you break your book project into smaller tasks. Start with individual chapters, and break down the chapters into component parts. Schedule your writing project into your day at specific times, and, with a little luck but more hard work, you’ll finish your pieces on time.
If you’re a person who resents and resists scheduling, remember that creating a writing plan is intended to help you, not restrict you. The goal is to relieve some stress, organize your life, and make your writing process more efficient. Meeting even mini deadlines can lift your spirits and bolster your confidence. Simply crossing items off to-do lists feels so good that the act in itself becomes a reward and keeps you writing.
Take a look at the following guidelines, which will help you better organize your writing time and, in turn, finish your projects.
- Set reasonable, measurable goals. Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub the toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.
- Divide and conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal. You’re likelier to accomplish smaller tasks in the near future than a vague goal in the abstract faraway. The tasks help you reach that distant goal step-by-step.
- Create a plan of ordered tasks. Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the niggling details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.
- Select dates and stick to them. “Someday, I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, an entire chocolate cake, or what have you. Enlist other people to hold you accountable.
- Work backward. The most important step in planning the time for your writing project is this one: On your calendar, mark the story’s final due date. (If you don’t have a deadline from a publisher, give yourself a reasonable one.) Then figure out when each of the specific items, in reverse order, must be completed if you are to meet that deadline. Allow a little wiggle room in your calendar for the delays that inevitably happen: an interviewee gets the flu and has to postpone by a few days, the computer crashes, etc.
Next to each item on your list, write the time you think it will take to accomplish it and the deadline for completing it. People commonly put far too many items on their to-do list and, as a result, feel defeated when they have to copy uncompleted items from day to day. As William James once wrote, “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” So jot down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in a day. Some people have success using online organizational websites to help them stay on track. For example, on www.Toodledo.com, users can create goals for themselves, color code them, assign themselves deadlines, prioritize the tasks in a “hotlist,” and keep track of the time spent on each project. There are other similar sites as well, including many that are compatible with PDAs and smart phones. (Of course, the old-fashioned system of a pen and a sticky note works fine, too.)
‘Tis the season … of short stories! Contests and journals are currently calling for submissions; to be selected, your story must stand out. By building strongly defined characters, a rich backstory, and the perfect pace and momentum, you can ensure your work makes the cut. Write & Sell Superior Short Stories is a kit that guides you through every phase of writing your short story, from gathering ideas to publishing your completed work. With creative writing prompts, advice from writing experts, and step-by-step guides to constructing scenes, choosing the right narrative and more, this kit will help you compose short stories that readers love and publishers can’t resist. Includes: Crafting Novels & Short Stories, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?, Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict, 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and much more!
Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.
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The Cabinet of Curiosities:
36 Tales Brief & Sinister
by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne;
illus. by Alexander Jansson
Middle School Greenwillow 488 pp.
6/14 978-0-06-233105-2 $16.99
Four “curators” — Bachmann, Catmull, Legrand, and Trevayne — travel to lands peregrine and outré to fill their Cabinet of Curiosities museum, sending back grotesqueries and objects of wonder as well as the tales behind them — tales that often bend to the tenebrous and unearthly. The table of contents lists the Cabinet’s “rooms” and “drawers,” each with a theme (cake, luck, tricks, flowers) and four or five tales to explore. In “The Cake Made Out of Teeth” (“collected by” Legrand) a spoiled-rotten boy must finish an entire cake made in his image, despite the sensation of teeth chewing him up with every bite. “Lucky, Lucky Girl” (Catmull) stars a young woman whose good luck seems to depend on the very bad luck of the people around her. In “Plum Boy and the Dead Man” (Bachmann), a rich and opinionated lad has a conversation with a corpse hanging from a tree…and ends up unwillingly changing places with the victim. “The Book of Bones” (Trevayne) features Eleanor Entwhistle, a plucky girl whose courage halts the work of a grave-robbing sorcerer. The stories are remarkable both for their uniformly high quality and for their distinctness from one another; the abundant atmospherics, including occasional stark black-and-white illustrations, provide a unifying sense of dread. The framing device — the curators send letters from the field introducing their latest discoveries — adds depths of mystery, danger, and idiosyncrasy to a book already swimming in each.
From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.Add a Comment
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13 macabre Twist in the Tale offerings, not for the faint hearted!Add a Comment
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From the narrow twisting streets of the old town centre to the shady docklands, Copenhagen Tales captures the essence of Copenhagen and its many faces. Through seventeen tales by some of the very best of Denmark’s writers past and present, we travel the length and breadth of the Danish capital examining famous sights from unique perspectives. A guide book usefully informs a new visitor to Copenhagen but these stories allow the reader to experience the city and its history from the inside. Translator Lotte Shankland is a Copenhagener by birth who has lived many years in England. In the videos below she discusses the collection, decribing the richness of Danish literature, as well as the Scandinavian noir genre.
Lotte Shankland on the greater significance of short stories within Denmark:
Lotte Shankland discusses her favourite short story, ‘Nightingale’, by Meir Goldschmidt:
From Hans Christian Andersen to Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark has been home to some of the finest writers in Europe. In the National Museum in Copenhagen you will find stories from as early as 1500 BC, covering myth and magic. A walk through the city will most likely involve an encounter with the emblematic statue of the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The Danes continue to tell great stories, as evidenced by the hugely popular Danish TV series The Killing and the Sweedish co-production The Bridge. Copenhagen Tales offers a way to understand the heart and soul of this diverse city, through the literature and art it has generated.
Featured image credit: Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Domain via Pixabay.
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There are fifteen stories in this collection. Some of them, like Poe’s “Ligeia,” I have read before. Some it really felt like I had read before but I couldn’t recall when or where, like “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (I just love the name Algernon, it’s so, I’m not sure what, but it tickles my fancy so it is probably good I don’t have kids because I’d be tempted to call a boy Algernon and then you know he’d go by “Algie” for short and all the kids at school would make fun of him). Others were plain silly like “At the Gate” by Myla Jo Closser in which a recently deceased dog takes up his vigil outside the gates of Heaven with the other dogs waiting for their owners to arrive.
My favorite story in the collection was “Lazarus” by Leonid Andreyev. It is the story of Lazarus after he was raised from the dead. Did you ever see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show where they bring Buffy back from the dead? She kind of wasn’t the same afterwards, or at least for a while. Well, Lazarus wasn’t the same either and while everyone was really glad to have him back, the haunting look in his eyes kind of freaked people out so no one wanted to be around him. Maybe if Lazarus had had a Scooby gang he would have eventually recovered.
Coming in second as my favorite story based only on the complete absurdity of it all, was “The Beast with Five Fingers” by W.F. Harvey. Bachelor uncle is ill and Eustace, while visiting, notices that uncle is unconsciously doing automatic writing. Eustace goofs around with this a bit until uncle dies. And then, in spite of uncle’s wishes to be cremated, he is not. Last minute instructions turn up and Eustace is bequeathed uncle’s well-preserved hand, the hand with which he did the automatic writing! The hand, of course, is alive but it isn’t uncle inhabiting it. At one point Eustace locks the hand in a desk drawer and the hand writes a note and slips it out through a crack in the desk. A servant finds a note bidding him to open the desk drawer and when the servant does so, the hand escapes! It is never clear why Eustace is being haunted by this hand or what the hand’s intent is, but the story comes very close to being a farce, right up to and including the hand eventually strangling Eustace and then the two of them ultimately perishing in a fire.
After reading so many ghost stories together it seems there is almost a requirement that at least one person experiencing the ghost or other phenomena has to be utterly and completely unbelieving. He, because it is usually a he in these stories, is then required to make up all sorts of logical explanations for what is happening. These explanations often approach the ridiculous. In the end, however, the unbeliever is convinced by the haunting and is either just in time to save himself or too late and dies. A few do believe right away and these have two responses. The smart ones figure out what the ghost wants. The not so smart ones go into battle. The smart ones generally come through unscathed and even satisfied about having helped a spirit move on. The not smart ones usually end up dead or psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lives.
These stories, even the bad ones, are all amusing in their own way. Of course I’m not supposed to be amused, I am supposed to get chills. But it seems that much of what haunts us is related to the times in which we live. Not that we can’t still feel a tingle down the spine when reading Poe, but it isn’t going to keep us up at night. Which makes me wonder whether in 100 years readers will think Stephen King is scary or will readers of the distant future read him and giggle and wonder why the twin girls in The Shining scare us so badly and make their way into other places like this IKEA commercial:
As a RIP Challenge read, Famous Modern Ghost Stories was quite fun. If you are looking for some older stories that don’t tend to show up in the anthologies, this would be a good choice.
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Remember how I said cleaning leads to writing? Yep, I’ve been busy. And I’m still busy, because I’m not exactly done. But I thought you’d be interested in an update and some recent releases, along with the coming attractions …
First, you can get these now:
LOVE PROOF is now out in audio! I love the narration Maria Hunter Welles did for it. And I didn’t announce it at the time (see above, been busy), but there are also audio editions of THE GOOD LIE, DOGGIRL, and REPLAY. I know. It’s a lot. Take your pick and listen away!
Also, I have a new short story collection out. It’s called A FEW STRANGE MATTERS, and it is. A little odd. But sometimes my mind needs a break from longer works like novels, and when I let my mind wander, it wanders. The collection has some contemporary, some science fiction, a little fantasy, some paranormal, and a couple of strange stories from the teen world. You might have read a few of them here and there, but I guarantee there are some you’ve never seen. Possibly because I wrote them under a pen name that none of you knew about. So take a look–I’ll be interested in hearing what you all think!
Now, for the coming attractions:
YES, PARALLELOGRAM 4 WILL BE OUT THIS FALL. That’s all I can say, because I have made the mistake before of giving you a pub date which turns out not to be true. But I promise you will feel satisfied and fulfilled when you read this final book in the series. I’m still working very hard to pull all the pieces together. Thank you for your questions (“When? WHEN??”) and your patience. I hate waiting, too. I get it. It’ll be along very soon.
And to make you even happier about all the time I’ve been hiding out, I’ll also have ANOTHER NEW BOOK for you by December, I believe. It’s fantasy, it’s epic, and it involves a girl warrior. Yessssss …
That’s my report for now. I have to go back to writing. I owe you all some books.
Happy Fall! ~RobinAdd a Comment
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We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Check in every Friday this October as we tell Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Last we left off the narrator was headed to bed after a night of opium and philosophical conversation with Dr. Hammond, a friend and fellow boarded at the supposed haunted house where they are staying.
We parted, and each sought his respective chamber. I undressed quickly and got into bed, taking with me, according to my usual custom, a book, over which I generally read myself to sleep. I opened the volume as soon as I had laid my head upon the pillow, and instantly flung it to the other side of the room. It was Goudon’s ‘History of Monsters,’—a curious French work, which I had lately imported from Paris, but which, in the state of mind I had then reached, was anything but an agreeable companion. I resolved to go to sleep at once; so, turning down my gas until nothing but a little blue point of light glimmered on the top of the tube, I composed myself to rest.
The room was in total darkness. The atom of gas that still remained alight did not illuminate a distance of three inches round the burner. I desperately drew my arm across my eyes, as if to shut out even the darkness, and tried to think of nothing. It was in vain. The confounded themes touched on by Hammond in the garden kept obtruding themselves on my brain. I battled against them. I erected ramparts of would-be blankness of intellect to keep them out. They still crowded upon me. While I was lying still as a corpse, hoping that by a perfect physical inaction I should hasten mental repose, an awful incident occurred. A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat, endeavoring to choke me.
I am no coward, and am possessed of considerable physical strength. The suddenness of the attack, instead of stunning me, strung every nerve to its highest tension. My body acted from instinct, before my brain had time to realize the terrors of my position. In an instant I wound two muscular arms around the creature, and squeezed it, with all the strength of despair, against my chest. In a few seconds the bony hands that had fastened on my throat loosened their hold, and I was free to breathe once more. Then commenced a struggle of awful intensity. Immersed in the most profound darkness, totally ignorant of the nature of the Thing by which I was so suddenly attacked, finding my grasp slipping every moment, by reason, it seemed to me, of the entire nakedness of my assailant, bitten with sharp teeth in the shoulder, neck, and chest, having every moment to protect my throat against a pair of sinewy, agile hands, which my utmost efforts could not confine,—these were a combination of circumstances to combat which required all the strength, skill, and courage that I possessed.
At last, after a silent, deadly, exhausting struggle, I got my assailant under by a series of incredible efforts of strength. Once pinned, with my knee on what I made out to be its chest, I knew that I was victor. I rested for a moment to breathe. I heard the creature beneath me panting in the darkness, and felt the violent throbbing of a heart. It was apparently as exhausted as I was; that was one comfort. At this moment I remembered that I usually placed under my pillow, before going to bed, a large yellow silk pocket-handkerchief. I felt for it instantly; it was there. In a few seconds more I had, after a fashion, pinioned the creature’s arms.
I now felt tolerably secure. There was nothing more to be done but to turn on the gas, and, having first seen what my midnight assailant was like, arouse the household. I will confess to being actuated by a certain pride in not giving the alarm before; I wished to make the capture alone and unaided.
Never losing my hold for an instant, I slipped from the bed to the floor, dragging my captive with me. I had but a few steps to make to reach the gas-burner; these I made with the greatest caution, holding the creature in a grip like a vice. At last I got within arm’s-length of the tiny speck of blue light which told me where the gas-burner lay. Quick as lightning I released my grasp with one hand and let on the full flood of light. Then I turned to look at my captive.
I cannot even attempt to give any definition of my sensations the instant after I turned on the gas. I suppose I must have shrieked with terror, for in less than a minute afterward my room was crowded with the inmates of the house. I shudder now as I think of that awful moment. I saw nothing! Yes; I had one arm firmly clasped round a breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all its strength a throat as warm, and apparently fleshly, as my own; and yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I absolutely beheld nothing! Not even an outline,—a vapor!
I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly. Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox.
It breathed. I felt its warm breath upon my cheek. It struggled fiercely. It had hands. They clutched me. Its skin was smooth, like my own. There it lay, pressed close up against me, solid as stone,—and yet utterly invisible!
I wonder that I did not faint or go mad on the instant. Some wonderful instinct must have sustained me; for, absolutely, in place of loosening my hold on the terrible Enigma, I seemed to gain an additional strength in my moment of horror, and tightened my grasp with such wonderful force that I felt the creature shivering with agony.
Just then Hammond entered my room at the head of the household. As soon as he beheld my face—which, I suppose, must have been an awful sight to look at—he hastened forward, crying, ‘Great heaven, Harry! what has happened?’
‘Hammond! Hammond!’ I cried, ‘come here. O, this is awful!
I have been attacked in bed by something or other, which I have hold of; but I can’t see it,—I can’t see it!’
Hammond, doubtless struck by the unfeigned horror expressed in my countenance, made one or two steps forward with an anxious yet puzzled expression. A very audible titter burst from the remainder of my visitors. This suppressed laughter made me furious. To laugh at a human being in my position! It was the worst species of cruelty. Now, I can understand why the appearance of a man struggling violently, as it would seem, with an airy nothing, and calling for assistance against a vision, should have appeared ludicrous. Then, so great was my rage against the mocking crowd that had I the power I would have stricken them dead where they stood.
‘Hammond! Hammond!’ I cried again, despairingly, ‘for God’s sake come to me. I can hold the—the thing but a short while longer. It is overpowering me. Help me! Help me!’
‘Harry,’ whispered Hammond, approaching me, ‘you have been smoking too much opium.’
‘I swear to you, Hammond, that this is no vision,’ I answered, in the same low tone. ‘Don’t you see how it shakes my whole frame with its struggles? If you don’t believe me, convince yourself. Feel it,— touch it.’
Hammond advanced and laid his hand in the spot I indicated. A wild cry of horror burst from him. He had felt it! In a moment he had discovered somewhere in my room a long piece of cord, and was the next instant winding it and knotting it about the body of the unseen being that I clasped in my arms.
‘Harry,’ he said, in a hoarse, agitated voice, for, though he preserved his presence of mind, he was deeply moved, ‘Harry, it’s all safe now. You may let go, old fellow, if you’re tired. The Thing can’t move.’
I was utterly exhausted, and I gladly loosed my hold.
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Writing Instruction VideoAs I have worked with various beginning picture book authors, a common problem that a lot of them run into is difficulty in conveying what their story is really about or going off in to many directions. Creative writing instructors in school may run into a similar problem when they assign students to write short stories. This writing instruction video on picture book plot addresses this issue.
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Going through some of the secondary literature on John Cheever in preparation for a class in which I assigned the students to read his 1954 story "The Country Husband", I was surprised to find no discussion of the story within a queer context. My search was not comprehensive, but the connection seems so obvious to me, and so illuminating for the story, that I'm surprised it isn't mentioned by most people who write about Cheever's tale.
Paging through Blake Bailey's comprehensive biography of Cheever makes the connection even more obvious than the story itself does, for Bailey notes that Cheever's journal "in the early months of 1954 was filled with self-loathing on the subject" of homosexual desire. It's a running theme throughout the book, as Colm Tóibín points out in an insightful essay on Cheever and Bailey's biography for the London Review of Books:
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’Of course, in 1954 Cheever could not write a short story about his desires and have it published by The New Yorker, even if he had wanted to (Alan Gurganus's "Minor Heroism" is reportedly the first openly gay story the magazine published, a story sent to the magazine by Cheever, who had been Gurganus's teacher and was, rather to Gurganus's chagrin, in love with him. It appeared 20 years — almost to the day — after "The Country Husband"). But the torment of the story's protagonist, Francis Weed, is one entirely familiar to anyone who has ever repressed socially unacceptable feelings.
On a general level, "The Country Husband" is a story about the struggle to keep chaos out of an ordered society: it is a story of repression and abjection. It opens with a fall: an airplane makes an emergency landing. Francis is on the plane, and once he makes his way back to New York, he first tries to tell a (male) friend about his experience, and then his wife and family, and none of them are particularly interested or able to hear him. The crash seems to them an absurdity or impossibility, something that can't be admitted into their consciousness. Francis lives in a world that seeks to keep the world itself at bay, a psychically gated community where everyone "seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war — that there was no danger or trouble in the world."
Various forces threaten the perfect, memoryless, painless order of Shady Hill: the dog Jupiter, the little girl Gertrude, and, most insistently, memories of the war years. War imagery fills the story on nearly every page right from the beginning, where the pilot of the crashing plane sings a song popular with Allied soldiers. The most obvious insertion of the war into the story is the moment where Francis recognizes that the Farquarson's maid is a woman he'd see in France in 1944, a woman subjected to "public chastisement" for having "lived with the German commandant during the Occupation". The description of her torture is harrowing: the mayor of the village condemns her, her hair is cut off, she's stripped naked, jeered at, spat upon. We know nothing of why she lived with the German commandant, or what that entailed exactly, or if she did it out of love or traitorous sympathies or simply the hope of gaining some extra rations — but her crime is clear and at least implicitly sexual. Francis remembers her, and the memory brings in the chaos of the war, but it also reminds him of what happens to anyone who transgresses the mores of a village.
(From a biographical standpoint, it's interesting that Cheever sets this scene in Normandy and, clearly, 1944. He was in the military that year himself, and missed going over to D-Day by pure luck. Almost all of the men he knew in his regiment died in the attack on Utah Beach and afterward.)
The overt transgression of the story is that Francis falls in love with the babysitter. (I expect this was a cliché even in 1954, and the very predictable, banal nature of the transgression is, it seems, part of Cheever's point.) Francis behaves terribly, even assaults her and very briefly entertains the idea of raping her. His desire is a sprawl of chaos, a threat of destruction. It poisons his family life and his friendships. Finally, he goes to a psychiatrist (as Cheever did the year he wrote the story, though Cheever went to discuss "homosexual concerns", impotence, and alcohol abuse), where, because he was insistent that he must see the doctor that day, he is confronted by police who think he might be a man who has been sending death threats. The police are there as representatives of social authority — the enforcers of normality and punishers of deviance — and they further heighten the sense of peril for any transgressor. When the doctor asks Francis what his problem is, he says, "I'm in love." The doctor tells him to try woodworking, and Francis finds some happiness in this. Woodworking, Timothy Aubry notes, "as a part of a 'do-it-yourself' movement was a constitutive aspect of a self-help culture that attempted to affirm the average white-collar worker’s belief in his power and masculinity."
That the ridiculous, impossible, yet dangerous and destructive love for the babysitter can be read as a placeholder for homosexual desire (and gay panic) seems to me to be become legitimate not only when we consider the plot and character relationships in the story, or Cheever's own biography, but also through an examination of three passages, and in particular three words.
The first two are relatively close together in the story: "The photograph of his four children laughing on the beach at Gay Head reproached him" and "The look Francis gave the little girl was ugly and queer, and it frightened her".
Of course, today, when the meanings of gay and queer denote homosexuality first and foremost, no writer or reader could ignore those meanings, but in 1954 the words meant differently. But they didn't not mean what they do today.
George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 is a useful text here, particularly the introduction in which he outlines the evolution of such words as fairy, faggot, gay, and queer. He quotes a writer from 1941:
Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was "wise" or even homosexual. One might ask: "Are there any gay spots in Boston?" And by slight accent put on the word "gay" the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. The uninitiated stranger would never suspect, inasmuch as "gay" is also a perfectly normal and natural word to apply to places where one has a good time.... The continued use of such double entendre terms will make it obvious to the initiated that he is speaking with another person acquainted with the homosexual argot.Chauncey writes: "The term gay began to catch on in the 1930s, and its primacy was consolidated during the war. By the late 1940s, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning."
Thus, while the reference to Gay Head beach (on Martha's Vineyard) primarily serves to evoke a particular location, to a reader "wise" to a particular double entendre, it may have an added meaning. Similarly, Francis's "ugly and queer" glance. Both words are used in sentences about children, which evokes not only the common 1950s homophobic associations of queers with pedophiles, but also attaches a homosexual association to the products (offspring) of good, manly heterosex. The photograph reproaches Francis not only by reminding him of the happiness that is possible with his family when he doesn't transgress, but also by reminding him of the perverse, nonprocreative desires that torment him. His glance at Gertrude is ugly and frightening because it is queer.
Then we have the ending, which I can attest will cause many snickers when read aloud to adolescents today. A cat dressed up in a doll's dress and straw hat runs away from whoever put it into such an inappropriate, uncomfortable costume:
"Here pussy, pussy, pussy!" Julia calls.While it is perfectly innocent in 1954 to call out "Here pussy!" to a cat, the more vulgar contemporary associations of that word were well established then. By the end of the 19th century, the word was used as slang for vulva or vagina, and its use as slang for someone timid, gentle, or effeminate goes back to the mid-19th century.
"Here, pussy, here, poor pussy!" But the cat gives her a skeptical look and mumbles away in its skirts. The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
And so the story ends with a cat wearing a doll's dress, being chased with a word that has slang associations for both female genitalia and unmanliness, followed by a dog that clearly stands for joyful but also threatening chaos, and the whole story ends with a reference to Hannibal, who, our textbook helpfully notes, "attacked the Romans from the rear".
Francis's gay panic is also, and perhaps primarily, a panic of effeminacy. War is the most manly of activities, and it haunts him. The world of Shady Hill confines him and reduces him in a way war did not — the manly virtues of the military within what was in World War II a staunchly homosocial milieu. His illicit, inappropriate, absurd desires are the chaos that escapes his repression. The exact nature of those desires doesn't much matter; it's the excess that counts. Woodworking will let him be happy for a little while, but there is no reason to read the ending as a happy one. Add a Comment
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The latest issue of the venerable British horror/dark fiction magazine Black Static includes my latest story, "Patrimony", and is now available both in print and as an e-book in various formats. I'm thrilled with the accompanying illustration by Richard Wagner, and thankful to Andy Cox for buying the story and rushing it into print, because it's one of the strangest and most disturbing things I've ever written, and not the sort of thing that just any editor would get excited about.
For a preview, here's the first paragraph:
For most of my life, I worked in the gravel pit as an overseer. There had been gravel there for a long time, but there wasn’t much left. Mostly, we spent our days trying to decide where to set off dynamite. We didn’t have a lot of dynamite, so we wanted to be precise. We would go for weeks and even months without lighting a single stick. I spent my days – ten-, eleven-hour days – telling the workers to try over here, to look over there, to dig here, to prod there. We sought the best rock, the least sand.Add a Comment
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I was surprised to come to the end of the book I was reading on my Kindle today. It’s a Project Gutenberg file of She and I always forget that those often end somewhere around the 95% to 98% mark. So when I finished I had a little panic because I hadn’t downloaded the gothic novels I had planned to read for RIP yet. I started paging through to see what I did have and discovered Famous Modern Ghost Stories.
Published in 1921, this is collection of ghost stories features the likes of Anatole France, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, and Edgar Allan Poe. The collection is assembled by Dorothy Scarborough, Ph.D., lecturer in English at Columbia University. This book has a companion volume she also compiled, Humorous Ghost Stories.
I am in the midst of the first story, “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood is so far not impressing me. The narrator of the story is canoeing down the Danube with a friend. They have reached a swampy area and found a dry island to camp on for the night. Problem is, he has gone on at great length for pages about the history of the Danube and the sites he and his friend have seen so far on their trip. I so wanted to shout numerous times, Get on with it! But since I was in public I kept my mouth closed and firmly projected my impatience at the story. Which makes me wonder now if somehow my firm mental projections at books I have read on my now dead Kindle had anything to do with its demise? Hmmm.
The Blackwood story is not what I was keen to tell you about. It’s the introduction to the book by Dorothy Scarborough, Ph.D. (that’s how she has her name on the book!). She is a hoot! Her introduction had me laughing throughout, not sure whether she was serious or pulling my leg. First she mentions how there has been a huge increase in the population of the spirit world and then she says:
Life is so inconveniently complex nowadays, what with income taxes and other visitations of government, that it is hard for us to have the added risk of wraiths, but there’s no escaping.
Then she goes on to try to explain why there might be more ghosts now than formerly and why they might be so much more vigorous than they used to be:
Perhaps the war, or possibly an increase in class consciousness, or unionization of spirits, or whatever, has greatly energized the ghost in our day and given him both ambition and strength to do more things than ever. Maybe ‘pep tablets’ have been discovered on the other side as well!
Next, she explains how modern ghosts are different from those old-timey ghosts:
Modern ghosts are less simple and primitive than their ancestors, and are developing complexes of various kinds. They are more democratic than of old, and have more of a diversity of interests, so that mortals have scarcely the ghost of a chance with them. They employ all the agencies and mechanisms known to mortals, and have in addition their own methods of transit and communication. Whereas in the past a ghost had to stalk or glide to his haunts, now he limousines or airplanes, so that naturally he can get in more work than before. He uses the wireless to send his messages, and is expert in all manner of scientific lines.
And ends up sounding like a motivational speaker for ghosts:
Whatever a modern ghost wishes to do or to be, he is or does, with confidence and success.
Finally she gets around to talking a bit about the stories in the collection. One of the stories has a man being haunted by a severed arm. Scarborough writes:
Fiction shows us various ghosts with half faces, and at least one notable spook that comes in half. Such ability, it will be granted, must necessarily increase the haunting power, for if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.
Are you laughing? I hope you are laughing.
The story I am most interested in reading falls second in the collection, “The Shadows on the Wall” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Scarborough says that “one prominent librarian considers [it] the best ghost story ever written.” I shall soon find out and let you know!
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Hope you like this book trailer for my macabre Twist in the Tale compilation of short stories. Perfect to read at Halloween, and certainly NOT for children!!Add a Comment
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Hilary Mantel’s newest book, a collection of short stories titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, has been getting quite a bit of press. It seems many people have decided to take offense at the titular story in which an IRA assassin tricks a woman into letting him into her apartment which has a perfect view, and perfect shot of the back of a hospital through which Thatcher will shortly be exiting. The woman at first is alarmed but ends up being sympathetic and helps the man by showing him an escape route through which he might be able to get away without capture. The story ends just before the gun is fired.
It’s a pretty good story. We are left wondering whether the assassination was successful. Well, we know it wasn’t, don’t we? Mantel isn’t out to rewrite history. So the shot was missed for some reason. We are left to wonder at the aftermath, left feeling sympathetic for the IRA man who fully expects to get caught but shows the utmost concern for the woman whose apartment he took over. And the woman? She’s middle-aged, single, tidy, reliable, caught in the habits of her daily life and not one to rock the boat. But this man gives her a chance to break free from the ordinary without much risk and she takes it. You can read the story yourself if you haven’t already.
Unfortunately all the talk about the one story has overshadowed the rest of the book. Most of these stories are complete stories with beginnings, middles and ends, no brief slice of life stuff that just goes for mood or effect, things happen in these stories. Whether it is an English woman living in Dubai with her husband for his job who inadvertently finds herself being courted by another man or a husband caught kissing a neighbor in the kitchen by his wife the shock of which actually causes his wife to die from an unknown heart defect, the stories feel complete.
Then there is the story “Comma” about two young girls, about twelve. The one who narrates, Kitty, lives in a solid, middle-class household. Her friend, Mary Joplin, who lives just across the street, is from a family of dubious status. But Kitty is friends with Mary and the pair slip away from the parental gaze to go wandering through the surrounding neighborhood. Mary discovers the house of a rich family across a field. At this house they have something that should be a baby but there is something wrong with it. Our narrator and Mary sneak over and spy to try and figure out what the adults refuse to talk about. And while we think the story is about this baby it is really about the relationship between our narrator and Mary and then finally on Mary’s low-class status and how that ultimately affects her life. We catch a glimpse of the two in middle age, Kitty recognizing Mary on the street one day:
It passed through my mind, you’d need to have known her well to have known her now, you’d need to have put in the hours with her, watching her sideways. Her skin seemed swagged, loose, and there was nothing much to read in Mary’s eyes. I expected, perhaps, a pause, a hyphen, a space where a question might follow . . . Is that you Kitty? She stooped over her buggy, settled her laundry with a pat, as if to reassure it. Then she turned back to me and gave me a bare acknowledgement: a single nod, a full stop.
Or the story “Winter Break” in which a husband and wife on a winter holiday, riding through the night in a taxi to their distant hotel are disturbed when the car hits something. The driver bundles it up in a tarp and puts it in the trunk. The couple think it is a goat which they have seen running around everywhere. But they discover something else when they reach their destination.
These stories are about normal people in their everyday lives. Husbands and wives, friends, coworkers, getting on as best they can, scared, alone, confused, making mistakes, trying to figure things out. The most exotic person is a writer in the story “How Shall I Know You?” who is invited by a book group to visit and give a talk. And while the story seems to be all about the writer, like “Comma” it ends up being about something else. Something bigger, that lifts it up from the ordinary to the extraordinary, if not for the characters in the story, at least for the reader who gets to see the big picture.
I’ve only ever read Mantel’s Cromwell books so I was expecting some interesting narrative stylings in the stories. But they are all pretty straightforward. I was not disappointed by that because I don’t need stylistic dazzling in my short stories; they aren’t long enough for me to get used to something unusual and by the time I’d get my bearings I’m afraid the story would be over and I’d be wondering what just happened. This is not to say that Mantel’s style is plain. She uses various structural elements that we are all familiar with: flash backs, foreshadowing, story breaks that indicate the passage of time. What I really liked about many of these stories is that often they were about something other than I initially thought they were about. And those moments in the story when I realized there was something else going on were very pleasurable.
So don’t be put off from this collection by all the press and all the controversy over the titular story. These stories are good reading.
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