Short Story Sunday: Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin

For my second short story of the year, I again come back to an author I already know. Last year, I read Kate Chopin’s most famous work, her novella The Awakening. Aside from this, her main literary output is in short stories, so she became a natural choice for this series.

In “Désirée’s Baby,” Chopin sticks to her Louisiana setting, but this time with a stronger emphasis on slavery and racism. Even before making clear that these are the main themes of the story, she sets the scene with conspicuous depictions of household slaves before moving into the main plot. At first, I entertained the thought that their depiction was the casual aside of a southern white author, but it was actually a deliberate lead-in for the topics Chopin chooses to address.

The ending seems characteristic of Chopin in tone, but with a plot twist worthy of O. Henry. On the whole, this story is a to-the-point commentary on the peculiarities of American racism in Chopin’s signature style: a melancholy tale about a woman navigating society and motherhood. If you liked The Awakening, you’ll probably appreciate this, and if you haven’t read it, “Désirée’s Baby” is solid as a more concise introduction to the author.

What short stories should I add to my list? Let me know in the comments!

Short Story Sunday: Paul’s Case by Willa Cather

To kick off Short Story Sundays, I decided to revisit an author I already know, Willa Cather. Last year I read O Pioneers! for the first time, and it was one of my favorite reads of the entire year. Cather is known for her depiction of the vast, sparse and idyllic Great Plains, so I was surprised to see that this story takes places in a much more familiar milieu, that of New York City.

Paul is a troubled teenage boy who feels suffocated by the dullness of school and his everyday life. His passion is rather for the glamour of Carnegie Hall and Fifth Avenue, of theatre, the opera, fine dining, and luxurious living. Something about that atmosphere makes him feel alive.

This topic seems the polar opposite of the work Cather is best known for, but her description of the city is just as absorbing as that of the country:

He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday World supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway…

Throughout the story, Cather paints gorgeous pictures of the city of New York, contrasting the Romance of high society with the grayscale of the mundane. Having grown up within a day trip’s distance of New York, I feel a connection to the story —  I love attending events or eating at restaurants there, but the public transport is nasty, everything is too crowded, there’s hardly anywhere to sit down unless you’re paying for it, and the air quality is poor. I’m not a true New Yorker, so I’m sure locals have their own reasons to love the city, but to me, it’s a place of both astounding highs and dismal lows. I think that Cather captures that dichotomy in this piece.

The progression of the plot is skillful, and as I turned each page, I experienced new revelations as to the nuances of “Paul’s Case,” the many facets of his life and the various roots of his troubles. And again, although the content of the story is very different from Cather’s plains trilogy, the twists and turns echo what I’ve seen in her other writing.

This venture has encouraged me to expand my knowledge of authors with whom I am already familiar rather than sticking to their most popular works, and I think that short stories are a great way to sample the different flavors. I had a similar experience when reading a collection of short stories by Shirley Jackson. I have a list ready of possible reads, and I’m excited to see what’s in store for me next.

Are there any short stories you love and think I should read? Tell me in the comments!

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Flashback Friday: Childhood Favorites

If you know me, you know I am an ardent fan of Ella Enchanted and Gail Carson Levine, and that her books pretty much defined my childhood. Today, though, I’m going to go a bit deeper into the authors and books that made me who I am now. I’ve restricted myself to elementary school favorites — middle school is a whole different game.

1. The Town Cats by Lloyd Alexander

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I’m easy. I will read almost any book that prominently features a cat. The Town Cats is a collection of short stories about various sentient talking cats in fantasy medieval settings, an excellent premise that is brilliantly executed here. The cats in question are often heroes, but usually roguish ones. Most memorably, the first story of the collection features a cat who convinces the entire populace of his village to switch place with their cats in order to evade increased regulation and taxes from the government. As you can guess, the level of humor is perfect for family entertainment: funny for kids, but with an extra layer of absurdity for their parents. It’s kind of like SpongeBob that way.

(See also: Time Cat, Chronicles of Prydain)

2. Dealing with Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) by Patricia C. Wrede
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I found Princess Cimorene’s name to be supremely unpronounceable, but that didn’t stop me from adoring her. This contrarian princess saves herself not from a dragon, but from a forced marriage by means of taking up with a dragon named Kazul. Whenever a prince or knight comes to “save” her in exchange for a hefty reward, she sternly kicks him out, usually without even calling on Kazul. She also learns practical skills from her new reptilian mentor, thwarts the plans of some unscrupulous wizards, and makes friends with other captives. I would gladly live in a cave with Kazul, who is the chillest dragon aunt ever.

3. Maximum Boy series by Dan Greenburg

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Max is a kid with amazing superpowers, but the caveat is that he can only use them at maximum. Maximum speed, maximum strength — he can’t parade that kind of power in front of his classmates, so he sticks to being the second slowest kid in gym class. In that sense, he’s a bit like Deku in My Hero Academia, for you anime fans. Also, he’s allergic to math. …There’s no real explanation for that part. I checked this series out of the library a weird number of times, and I’m not really sure why. It’s such a typical kid-superhero storyline, but it’s well done. Max reminds me a little bit of Percy Jackson, a wisecracking kid who somehow has to save Manhattan.

4. Tales of Magic series by Edward Eager

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I took these from my classroom library originally mistaking them for Roald Dahl books. The covers in my teacher’s classroom copies featured cute sketches of children in fantastical situations against a white background, so it was an easy mistake to make. It’s a charming series of low fantasy stories that take a group of children from the mundane to the fantastical. It’s hard for me to remember specific plot points, but all of it has an air of whimsy. The “half magic” coin only does half of what you want it to, and there’s a thyme garden that facilitates time travel. It surprises me that I don’t hear more people talking about these books.

What books did you love reading as a kid? Are any of these among them? Tell me in the comments!

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Review: Eye by Marianne Micros

I was provided a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I suppose you could say the cover of this book… caught my eye. After reading it, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Eye is a loosely thematic collection of short stories that mostly center around, you guessed it, the eye. About as strong is the focus on Greece: its myths, its history, and its superstitions, most prominently the “evil eye.” The author is a retired English professor of Greek heritage, and both of these facts come through in her writing.

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The first half of the book includes stories that take place on various Greek islands, most of them about the evil eye, the advent of modernity in rural Greece, or both. The similarities between the stories make them tend to run together, especially when the same handful of names is recycled across stories. It’s unclear whether the author intended some characters to be present in different stories or if she simply wanted to emphasize how common these names are.

With so many stories in similar settings with similar topics, it becomes clear that some are weaker than others, less fleshed out, scraps that could easily have been excised from the collection. “No Man” is a decent introduction to the concept of the evil eye, so I understand why Micros chose to place it at the beginning, but as a story, it falls flat compared to the eerie tone that was likely intended. “The Midwife” and “Thirteen” are likewise unimpressive, and “Paved” is just difficult to read.

Here is where I may have a difference in opinion with someone with an M.F.A. Most notably with “Paved,” but also in some of the other stories, Micros uses experimental, semi-poetic formatting. Her previous publications have been mainly poetry. While I do enjoy poetry, I have limited patience for experimental formatting in prose or prose-like works unless it is done exceptionally well. In my view, Micros uses tired textual tricks that do little to enhance the stories and simply make them less accessible. If this sort of thing is your bread and butter, though, you may find it more interesting than I did.

Out of the swath of stories about traditional Greek life, the title story “Eye” is the most complex and complete, and it forms a clear nucleus to the other works in this section of the text. “The Sacrifice” and “The Secret Temple” also have some freshness to them, although they still aren’t top-tier.

The second half of the collection branches out into more diverse topics, both more fantastical and more realistic than the first. “One Hundred Eyes” takes something of a risk with perspective by telling the tale of Io, who was turned into a cow, in the first person, but ultimately not much is added to the myth with this retelling. “The Cave of Lust” is the most bizarre of the collection and leaves the reader with some food for thought. It is based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which I have not read, and so I do not know how the original might inform the impression of someone who has read it. “The Changeling’s Brother” has a decent but predictable twist.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman.

The strongest of the collection are “The Minotaur” and “The Birthday Gift.” “The Minotaur” has a unique protagonist and concept, and my only complaint is that the metaphor involved is a bit too ham-fisted. “The Birthday Gift” is a curious, insightful comment on the nature of superstition.

The final story, “The Invention of Pantyhose: An Autobiography” is another dive into the word salad-y prose that I disliked in “Paved,” which is a shame, because there is some good content in there.

So, what’s the verdict? These stories aren’t poorly written, exactly, not even the ones with disagreeable formatting. They are structurally sound, as meticulously pruned as one might expect the words of an English professor to be. In terms of content, though, many of the stories suffer from unbearable homogeneity, and that extends to the voices of the characters as well. Each of the first-person narratives reads the exact same way, which defeats the purpose of first-person perspective. I would like the author to have examined a bit more closely who each of her characters are and try to express that through their narrations.

This book is not my cup of tea, but if you are particularly interested in Greek culture or enjoy a poetic, university English department-approved style of writing, it might be for you.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

Buy Eye here!

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