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Short Story Monday: Alphabet Style

November 23, 2009

(Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford.) When updating my review directories this weekend, I was inspired to try to read and review some short stories that would ‘fill in the gaps’ so I could have complete alphabets. I have yet to find an ‘X’ author who writes short stories, but other than that, I’ve found one story for each remaining letter. I haven’t been in much of a reading mood the past few days, but it occurred to me that maybe some individual short stories, read on the internet and thus with no obligation to read a whole book, would break me out of my slump. And I believe they have! Three of the stories I read were classics, and fairy stories at that. The other two were modern. Let’s talk about the fairy stories first. ;)

I didn’t intend to read via theme today, but I’m quite happy that it worked out that way. Three different classical authors, from three different countries, all writing short stories sprinkled with fairy dust-I quite enjoyed myself.

“Red Hanrahan” by William Butler Yeats
First, I decided to read a William Butler Yeats story: “Red Hanrahan” (which is available for free at Project Gutenberg). I had read a couple of Yeats’ more famous poems, and I knew that he was a great scholar of fairy lore, but I had no idea that he had written short stories. His love for Ireland really shines through in this one, and it has such a classic set-up. A group of men are in a barn/pub on Samhaim (aka Halloween). Red Hanrahan receives a message that from his sweetheart, that he should come see her as soon as he can, since her mother’s died and she’s worried about keeping her house. But just as he’s about to dash off, an old man in a corner, who no one has ever met before, pulls out a pack of cards and invites the whole pub to play for awhile. To see what else happens, you’ll have to read the story, but I absolutely loved Yeats’ writing style. It follows in the fairy tradition, but it doesn’t just feel recycled, and it positively teems with life. And his descriptions are wonderful, like this of the barn/pub in the beginning:

There was a fire on the old hearth, and there were dip candles stuck in bottles, and there was a black quart bottle upon some boards that had been put across two barrels to make a table. Most of the men were sitting beside the fire, and one of them was singing a long wandering song, about a Munster man and a Connaught man that were quarrelling about their two provinces.

I’ll definitely be reading more of Yeats’ stories in the future!

“The Fairy Amoureuse” by Emile Zola
Next I turned to Zola and his “The Fairy Amoureuse (available for free at Bibliomania-the site has frames, so I can’t link straight to the story, but that’s the directory). I’ve been meaning to read Zola for some time but haven’t actually tried anything of his before. In this story, he uses the stylistic device that an unknown narrator (probably a nurse) is recounting the story to a young girl, who is addressed in second person several times throughout. This is a pretty common device in fairy tale inspired writing, since so many of these stories are thought to have sprung organically from the peasants, and it’s set up in the first paragraph:

Do you hear the rain, Nanon, beating against the windows? And the wind sighing through the long corridor? It’s a horrid night, a night when poor wretches shiver before the gates of the rich, who dance indoors in rooms bright with many gilded chandeliers. Take off those silk slippers of yours, and come sit on my knee before the blazing hearth. Lay aside your gorgeous finery: I’m going to tell you a pretty fairy tale this evening.

Anyway, it’s the story of a pair of young lovers and a fairy (named Amoureuse) who takes them under her wing. I enjoyed this one, and stylistically it worked well, but it lacked the vibrancy of the Yeats’ story. It felt several levels removed, like I was reading Bulfinch’s Mythology, rather than hearing an tale from my old nursemaid. Still, it made me want to try Zola more in the future-has anyone read his novels and know where a good place to start is?

“The Specter Bridegroom” by Washington Irving
My final classical selection was a new-to-me author from my very own country, Washington Irving. The story “The Specter Bridegroom” (available for free at Read Books Online), however, is set in Germany. And the Germany that’s full of thick forests, roving bands of outlaws, and nobility who love nothing more than to host a good feast and tell supernatural stories. In particular, this story is about a Baron who has a single, beautiful daughter, and the events surrounding a feast he throws for her future bridegroom. It’s ghostly and witty and funny all at once. Irving’s style really took me by surprise-he manages to both set a mood and poke a bit of fun at his own stylistic devices. I thought this description of the daughter quite amusing, and it reminded me of Austen and a certain conversation in Pride and Prejudice:

Under their instructions she became a miracle of accomplishments. By the time she was eighteen she could embroider to admiration, and had worked whole histories of the saints in tapestry with such strength of expression in their countenances that they looked like so many souls in purgatory. She could read without great difficulty, and had spelled her way through several Church legends and almost all the chivalric wonders of the Heldenbuch. She had even made considerable proficiency in writing; could sign her own name without missing a letter, and so legibly that her aunts could read it without spectacles. She excelled in making little elegant good-for-nothing, lady-like knicknacks of all kinds, was versed in the most abstruse dancing of the day, played a number of airs on the harp and guitar, and knew all the tender ballads of the Minnelieders by heart.

The story itself is well plotted and really enjoyable as well. The characters are definitely archetypes, in the way of fairy tales, but I think that works for the story. Another author I’ll be looking out for more in the future!

Then there’s two modern pieces. The first story I actually read months ago and forgot to review.

“Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” by Karen Russell
I’ve had Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves for some time-I read about half of it earlier this year, but I decided I’d enjoy it more if I didn’t read all of the stories at once. I think Russell’s still finding her stride-some of her stories are both quirky and touching while others are simply trying a bit too hard. Fortunately, “Z.Z’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” falls into the former category. I’ve never been to a summer camp (and never wanted to go), but I really think they’re the American version of British boarding school stories. Whenever I encounter them in books, it’s always about the kids forming their own societies, with rigid hierarchies, and thwarting or ignoring the distant adult authorities. The story is narrated by a boy, and as with all of Russell’s stories the writing has a definite fable-like feel to it that I enjoyed. Anyway, the boy is (of course) in love with an enigmatic girl he meets at camp. When odd things begin happening all over the camp, they try to figure out who’s at the bottom of it. I liked the mystery woven in with a coming-of-age story woven in with the oddness of the camp itself (where cabins are divided based on sleep disorder). I think it has a wonderful opening sentence:

Emma and I are curled together in the basket of the Thomas Edison Insomnia Balloon, our breath coming in soft, quick bursts.

It’s not available online, but I’d urge you to try out Russell’s writing for yourself if you have the opportunity.

“Luda and Milena” by Lara Vapnyar
Finally, I read another modern short story by Lara Vapnyar: “Luda and Milena” (available for free at The New Yorker). I think after all the fairy tale, classic stories, this one felt like having cold water thrown on my face. I was attracted to it because of the Eastern European flavour, but for me it was just a bit too New Yorker to appeal to me. The writing was exactly what you might expect from an MFA program, as was the meandering plot with its sudden ending. Even the main characters, two septuagenarian Russian women attending an ESL class in Brooklyn, were just what you would expect. And the negative view of love and aging and people in general. I wouldn’t say this was a badly written story, but there was nothing to make it stand out. I doubt I’d read more Napnyar in the future. I’d rather spend my time reading stories that have some magic in them. ;)

Do you enjoy fairy tale inspired stories? Who’s your favourite author?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2009 8:55 pm

    Thanks you for including the links to the stories! I’m especially interested in Zola. Therese Raquin is his only novel I’ve read, but I loved and definitely want to read more! My review:

  2. November 23, 2009 9:32 pm

    I’ve read that Karen Russell’s book of short stories. Some of them were incomprehensible to me in terms of meaning and point, such as the one with the skating rink. My favorite one from the book was “from Children’s Reminisences of the Westward Migration.”

  3. Sarah permalink
    November 23, 2009 10:57 pm

    I didn’t know Yeats wrote short stories either, what a discovery! I will have to read Red Hanrahan now.

    Re Zola, I really enjoyed Cousin Bette and The Ladies’ Paradise- the first for its scheming and the second for its celebration of shopping!

  4. November 23, 2009 10:59 pm

    Funny about the Zola. Wilkie Collins had utter contempt for Zola and other “naturalist” writers. I’m very curious as I know not much about the person, let alone the era.

    I enjoyed Irving last year. It’s good to think of it as a fairy story! I hadn’t put it quite that way. If I recall, though, they kind of tell the end of it right away. I felt it kind of spoiled it a bit. But maybe I’m thinking of a different story.

  5. November 23, 2009 11:27 pm

    Wow, I am shocked to discover that Yeats wrote short stories! That excerpt you provided is so delightful that I will have to check these stories out.

    I’ve read a couple of Zola novels for my book club. The one recommendation that I can give is to NOT start with Nana. It’s too much of the overdone “Femme Fatale” genre. However, I’ve also read The Masterpiece and thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt like it said a lot about art and the lifestyle it can produce. My review is here:

    Rebecca’s comment about Collins disliking Zola is kind of funny. I had never thought about it before, but the two authors do seem rather at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

  6. November 24, 2009 12:16 am

    Wow, you have been reading a lot of short stories. Thats great! Thanks for all of the links. I am most looking forward to the Yeats

  7. November 24, 2009 1:29 am

    thanks for sharing the on line sources where we can read these also has a lot of short stories on line

  8. November 24, 2009 6:26 am

    The mention of Washington Irving reminded me that as a kid, I had a playing card set of American authors and yet I can’t tell you any books he’s written – so I just tripped over to Wiki and found all sorts of interesting things. Did you know he’s credited with the term, “the Almighty Dollar”? and for calling NYC Gotham? (of course- if you trust Wiki, that is!) silly stuff you find when you’re looking up something else… :)
    I’ve read the Karen Russell book, too.

  9. November 24, 2009 6:56 am

    Very interesting post. I am working out now, not with short stories but books in general, if I have not read anything by an author with a certain intial starting surname and it may be X!!! I need to go investigate further.

  10. November 24, 2009 7:26 am

    Thanks to our mutual favorite dark-haired beauty from Portugal, I read a delightful fairy story myself yesterday…”The Story of the Eldest Princess.” Yes, you and Ana were right…this is definitely the book to rid me of my fear of Byatt. :D

    A few years ago, Annie and I were doing a unit on New York authors, and we read a couple Washington Irving stories. I have to admit that I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed them. But I haven’t read “The Specter Bridegroom”…will have to remedy that. I’d really like to try the Yeats story as well. Thanks for the great reviews, Eva! And the links!

  11. November 24, 2009 10:27 am

    What a wonderful selection of authors! I have read Zola’s J’Accuse, but never a short story by him, so that was very interesting. I’m not surprised by Washington Irving because “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a short story too, but what a wonderfully descriptive phrase you cited: “little elegant good-for-nothing, lady-like knicknacks of all kinds…”

  12. November 24, 2009 11:37 am

    Sounds like a great group of stories. I read one by Graham Greene on Sunday and enjoyed it although it disturbed me too. I would love to read more short stories since they are good to read in between other things and I can have a sense of accomplishment! I’ll add these to my list to check out also!

  13. November 24, 2009 4:52 pm

    JoAnn, thanks for linking to your review!

    Christy, I don’t think I’ve read the skating rink one yet. I did really like your favourite!

    Sarah, I know-isn’t it exciting?! lol I’ve read Cousin Bette-it was really good (but by Balzac). I’ve been wanting to read The Ladies’ Paradise, but my library doesn’t have it-thanks for reminding me! Maybe I’ll ILL it since you enjoyed it (and I lurve shopping).

    Rebecca, I vaguely knew Collins wasn’t a fan of naturalism-I wonder if I’ll enjoy Zola’s novels as much as I do his! This Irving story didn’t tell the end right away…there’s a bit in the middle that, if moved lower, might have made the story more mysterious though.

    Daily Words and Acts, I know-I was surprised too! lol @ your anti-recommendation; I’ll definitely avoid that one.

    Teddy, I read these all in about an hour-that’s one thing I love about short stories! :)

    Mel U, no problem-I’ve used too. I love how many stories are available for free online.

    Care, I know he wrote Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle…not that I’ve actually read either of those, lol. I didn’t know about him coining those phrases-cool!

    SavidgeReads, I haven’t read an ‘X’ author in books either, but I have Sky Burial by Xinran waiting for me on my shelves. ;) I wish she’d written short stories too!

    Debi, isn’t it wonderful?! I LOVE that whole book-wait until you get to the novella. :D I kind of wish I had someone to homeschool-you always read the neatest stuff for it. lol

    Rhapsody, I knew Irving wrote short stories, but I expected them to be kind of dull. Now I definitely want to read Sleepy Hollow!

    Kathleen, I love Greene but he is depressing. If you want to check out my ‘Stories Read’ page, all of the ones I read for free online are linked to their sources. Just if you need more suggestions though!

  14. November 24, 2009 5:56 pm

    I loved Nana, and also enjoyed L’Assommoir (not sure what the translated title is, think it’s something like the Drinking Den) which is a sort of prequel to Nana and features Nana herself as a little girl. It’s a bit grim though – about how the dice were loaded against the nineteenth-century working classes.

    Au bonheur des dames was recommended to me as a more cheerful Zola, but I’ve never got round to it. Therese Raquin is one of Zola’s rare standalones and a good murder story.

  15. November 24, 2009 7:55 pm

    I had no idea Yeats wrote short stories either. I’ve bookmarked (though I put it in a Halloween folder for next year). I also bookmarked the Zola story. Thanks for the recommendations!

  16. November 24, 2009 9:52 pm

    Hi Eva, Thanks for telling me about the link to the free stories I can read online! BTW, I purchased Fun House by Alison Bechdel and started it today. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it has exceeded all of my expectations so far. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I’m pretty happy to FINALLY be reading my first graphic novel!

  17. November 25, 2009 10:30 am

    I’m going to be reading Zola’s Germinal come up shortly. I’ll let you know how I like it!
    Thanks for the great recommendations!

  18. adevotedreader permalink
    November 26, 2009 3:21 am

    Sorry for the blonde moment Eva, of course Cousin Bette is my Balzac! In its place, another Zola novel I was moved by was Germinal, afar from cheerful look at life as a miner.

  19. November 29, 2009 7:44 pm

    After just reading the Zola story, I think you may be mistaken that the narrator was a girl’s old nursemaid. Reread the last paragraph, especially the last line that says, “…in the hope that it will inspire you to love a little more the young man who told it to you.” If this is a young man telling her the story, the whole thing becomes, well… creepy.

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