Short Story Review – “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

Margaret_Atwood_2015

Margaret Atwood (image source)

 

“At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” That first line had me hooked right away. Not that I needed much prodding to read a story by the prolific Man Booker Prize winning author Margaret Atwood. I had heard so much praise about her works that I had been planning to read her novels for a while. However, when this short story came up instead, I pounced at the opportunity to get introduced to her work.

And what an introduction it has been! The story is about an elderly lady who goes on a cruise and happens to meet someone who brings back dark memories from her earlier life. She wonders if she should let things pass or not and after some deliberation, decides to take action.

The tale has its fair share of suspense and the reader empathises with Verna. The tale does have a definite end, but Verna and her motivations does make one pause and reflect on her actions of the present and the past. We are also left wondering whether justice was served and what the nature of justice is.

Not to say that the story isn’t funny. I found myself chuckling and grinning at more than one point. Perhaps this dark, macabre humour also contributes to why Atwood later clarified that she would like to categorise “Stone Mattress” not as a story but as a tale, in that it has a touch of the magical.

Although written back in December 2011, this story is absolutely relevant today in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Atwood shows the world not just the violence involved in sexual assault but also the emotions and challenges that survivors of sexual violence have to live with.

Read more about ‘Stone Mattress’ on Goodreads. Buy the book of short stories here.

Title: Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales

Authors: Margaret Atwood

First published: 2014

No. of Pages: 320

Price: (Paperback) Rs. 460 / (Kindle) Rs. 346.92 (Amazon.in)

(Disclosure: If you buy books by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

 

Advertisements

Short Story Review – “City Lovers” by Nadine Gordimer

https://frisbeebookjournal.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/gordimer.jpg?w=300&h=300

Nadine Gordimer (image source)

 

A few months ago, I read “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah. The autobiographical book is about his experiences growing up in the apartheid regime in South Africa. What makes the story even more compelling is that Trevor was considered “a person of colour”, since his mother was African and his father was white. The book discusses not only the racism that was practiced, but also quite a few funny anecdotes of people not knowing how to treat him because he belonged to neither group.

“City Lovers” instantly reminded me of Trevor Noah. This short story, which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1975, is by the Booker Prize (1974) and Nobel Prize in Literature (1991) winning author, Nadine Gordimer. It tells the story of a European geologist working in South Africa who grows close to and gets intimate with a coloured woman whom he first happens to meet at the supermarket. Their relationships is considered illegal according to the laws present at the time, and they must hide their affair. The story traces their affair and the legal and social consequences.

I usually do not like stories that go nowhere. This was a wonderful exception. The story is truly thought-provoking, as it makes you wonder about not only the intentions but also the motivations of the various characters for acting the way they do. This is also true of the minor characters in the story, for example the doctor and the policeman. They’re not evil, just doing their job within a grossly racist system. The story doesn’t come across as a moralising tale, rather makes you focus on the personal relationship of the couple.

This is a beautiful little story which made me sit back and think awhile after I finished reading it. It’s a touching tale that I definitely recommend you to read.

You can hear a narration of the story here.

Read more about ‘City Lovers’ on Goodreads.

While I couldn’t find a book which had the story “City Lovers” in it’s collection, I did come across the following book which was edited by Nadine Gordimer and includes a short story by her as well. None of the authors contributing to the book took a fee or take any royalty from the sale of this book; all money goes to the treatment and prevention of HIV/Aids.

Title: Telling Tales

Authors: Various; Editor: Nadine Gordimer

First published: 2004

No. of Pages: 320

Price: (Paperback) Rs. 350 (Amazon.in)

(Disclosure: If you buy books by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories” edited by Ruskin Bond

Book: The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

Edited by: Ruskin Bond

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication Year: 1994

Number of pages: 184

Price: Rs. 200 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 175 (Flipkart) / Rs. 166.25 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

I picked this book up at the bookstore near my house in Calcutta, a couple of days before I left for the Cherra Marathon. I read a few of these stories in Shillong, a couple of them on my way back on the flight (I see the irony here), and then finished the book back here in Calcutta.

And once again, the reason why it took me so long to finish this book is because, like it happened with Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman“,  the stories, at least in the first half of the book, didn’t impress me much.

The book is split into two halves: stories from before and after India’s independence. And although I’d expected the stories in the first half to fascinate me more, this is where disappointment lay. In place of stories which I expected to make me travel back in time, to a place where railway stations were little hubs of activity and filled with interesting stories, I was peddled with stories with weak plots which rather felt like I was sipping tepid and tasteless chai at a railway station.

The only story worth mentioning from the first half is the excerpt from Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days. The story is able to capture some of the romance of early railroad travel made especially challenging in Indian conditions. In it is a description of the opulent city of Bombay, forests to be crossed and unexpected interruptions as Phileas Fogg and Passepartout make their way across the Indian sub-continent.

The rest of the stories in the first half, even though a couple of them are by Kipling, can be skipped over. They did little to catch my attention and much to test my patience.

What impressed me really, was the second half of the book. With stories from writers such as Khushwant Singh, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond himself, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t.

The following is a brief review of each of the stories that appear in the Stories After Independence section:

Loyalty by Jim Corbett – One of the two disappointments in this second half, Loyalty is an autobiographical narration by Corbett about his challenges from the time when he was employed in the Indian Railways. The only aspect of this story that caught my eye was how much responsibility a twenty-one year old was entrusted with back then. My rating: 2/5

Mano Majra Station by Khushwant Singh – An extract from Singh’s Train To Pakistan. The tale, which begins amusingly, is a story set in the Punjab during the time of Partition. It captures the character of a village caught up in forces beyond its reckoning, as the story comes to a chilling end. My rating: 4/5

The Woman on Platform 8 by Ruskin Bond – A vintage Ruskin Bond story. A schoolboy, travelling alone, is waiting at a station for his train. A woman befriends him and offers him a meal. But are things really what they seem or is she a crook? My rating: 4/5

The Intimate Demon by Manoj Das – A beautifully worded little story about a father and daughter’s railway journey. My rating: 4/5

A Stranded Railroad Car by Intizar Husain – A group of men in a village gather round for their evening hookah and narrate tales of this new fangled beast called the railroad car. My rating: 3/5

Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment by Satyajit Ray – The master story-teller that he is, Ray whips up the suspense pretty early in the story and the surprise ending will certainly make you smile. My rating: 4/5

Balbir Arora goes Metric by Bill Aitken – The second and final weak story in the second half. Too long-winded. Might be of some interest to a railway geek. My rating: 3/5

Railway Reverie by R. K. Laxman – An extract from Laxman’s book The Messenger. An ill-chosen extract perhaps, because it was surprisingly short and had a very abrupt ending. My rating: 3/5

The Cherry Choo-Choo by Victor Banerjee – A heartwarming little tale which made me laugh at a number of places. My rating: 4/5

99 UP by Manojit Mitra – “This is the kind of story about railways that I wanted to read,” I told myself when I finished 99 UP. The story captures how a little town on the outskirts of Calcutta gets caught up in a frenzy when a movie star is expected to drop by for a film’s release. The story describes the various people of the village and how the visit captures each one’s imagination. My rating: 5/5

Lingering thoughts:

  • It is a sad sign of the times that in a book of Indian railway stories, I kept reading POW, which was supposed to stand for Palace on Wheels, as Prisoners of War. Sigh.
  • “The blue-eyed, brown-haired and pale-skinned Anglo-Indian engine driver who had rolled the ‘Choo-Choo’ into town, was whisked away by hordes of admirers, laced with rice wine that had fermented for weeks in diurnal anticipation of the arrival of the train and, in the morning, was discovered dead in the local brothel where, introduced as an Apollo from Calcutta, he succumbed to an endless striving to uphold his standard.”
  • “‘An old buddy?’ ‘No,’ murmured Bridges with a slight smile, ‘Half-devil and half-child, but by the living God that made him, he was a better man than I. A funny story; a wonderful memory.'”
  • Two books added to my to-read list from here: Around The World In Eighty days by Jules Verne and 20 Stories by Satyajit Ray.
  • Must read more stuff by Manojit Mitra.
  • I think I’m done with short stories for now. Need to read a novel which will sustain my interest over a longer period of time.

Image courtesy: www.flipkart.com

Read more about ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.inFlipkart or for your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” by Haruki Murakami

Book: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Vintage Books

Publication Year: 2006

Number of pages: 436

Price: Rs. 303 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 339 (Flipkart) / Rs. 275 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

Looking back, I realised I was gifted this book way back in December last year. It has taken me about 7 months to finish reading it.

Why did it take me so long, you ask?

Well, this book was gifted to me by a very good friend. And I have always liked the writings of Haruki Murakami. These two reasons were good enough for me to soldier on and continue reading beyond the point where I usually would’ve given up.

And I was justly rewarded for my efforts. Some of the stories towards the end of the book are vintage Murakami: slightly weird, lots of fun and handsome amount of soul searching.

The first story in the book which made me feel this way was “Firefly”. I had almost told myself “I’m not going to read any more of this book if this story isn’t worth it.” And then, Murakami gave a glimpse of the kind of stories he can tell. At the end of this one, for example, you feel as if you’ve stopped at the finish line but the answer still lies somewhere in the distance: you’ve reached your destination but can only see the solution from afar.

He follows this up with, in my humble opinion, the best story in the book: The Chance Traveller. The serendipitous meeting between a gay piano tuner and an unhappy wife, along with the two curious incidents from the author’s own life, make for a beautiful story of love and connecting with the strange ways of the Universe.

It would be unfair to say that the next story, Hanalei Bay, is any less beautiful. It narrates the grief of a single mother who has lost her only son and what happens when she comes to the part of the world where he died.

The final two stories in the book, The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day and A Shinagawa Monkey, helped me to finish this book with a smile.

I wish I could say that for the rest of the stories. I was left bewildered by most of them and some of them seemed to end abruptly. Not that this isn’t what Murakami usually does. It felt like an artist had gone just that slight bit overboard and indulged himself in his fancies, leaving us who appreciate his art stranded on a different plane.

To summarise, I still love reading Haruki Murakami’s writings. He creates a world which is absurd and yet it brilliantly connects with the reader within me. Unfortunately, I think he overdid the randomness this time.

P.S. Nenette on Goodreads has done a story-by-story review and rating here. I think she has done a splendid job.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “There are only three ways to get along with a girl: one, shut up and listen to what she has to say; two, tell her you like what she’s wearing; and three, treat her to really good food. Easy, eh?”
  • “Your work should be an act of love, not a marriage of convenience.”
  • This chap Murakami has certainly had some weird sexual experiences. Look at all the ways in which he talks about it. Not judging him. Just an observation.

Update on 6 Aug 2015: I have stumbled upon the The Best Way to Read Haruki Murakami. Those who want to get started with Murakami or want to figure out their way through this man’s works must give this post by Book Oblivion/Jessica a look. Happy navigating!

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in, Fipkart or for your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” by Oscar Wilde

Book: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (Little Black Classics #59)

Author: Oscar Wilde

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Year: 2015

Number of Pages : 50

Price: Rs. 42 (Amazon) / Rs. 42 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

There is something about Oscar Wilde’s writing which always makes me pause and smile at the wonderfully crafted sentences. I’d felt this way when I’d read the only novel that he’s written, “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, and again when I read the short story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”.

What I’d expected to be a dark tale about one man’s psychological struggle to come to grips with a prediction that he was soon going to commit a murder turned out to be a witty tale; a tongue-in-cheek look at upper class London society with a fun, surprising end.

I read this book one evening in Shillong, and this was the perfect read to compliment the beautiful hill station and the wonderful quiet which is associated with unhurried evenings at such places.

I cannot wait to read more by Wilde. And if you haven’t read anything by him thus far, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is an excellent place to begin.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven” edited by Sudha Murthy

Book: Something Happened On The Way To Heaven

Edited by: Sudha Murthy

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication Year: 2014

Number of Pages (Kindle): 224

Price: Rs. 200 (Flipkart) / Rs. 175 (Amazon) / Rs.  157.70 (Kindle)

My rating: 2/5

A book that I bought and persisted with since one of the twenty real-life short stories here features a friend of mine. Although she had warned me that the publishers had dumbed down the language in the book, I was taken aback with what I read. Some of the tales are really naive too, which doesn’t help either.

Avoid.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Something Happened On The Way To Heaven’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Yma Dream – Thomas Meehan

Here’s a fun performance by Anne Bancroft, based on a little story titled Yma Dream that author Thomas Meehan wrote for The New Yorker magazine.

All I can say is beware of the guests you invite in to your dreams; the results can be disastrously hilarious.

P.S. I discovered this story through a performance I heard on Selected Shorts, a podcast I have blogged about previously.

Selected Shorts – Donna Tartt, Etgar Keret and Evelyn Waugh

Selected Shorts is one among the handful of podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly of late.

“It’s story time for adults,” says their website, “with PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. Recorded live at Peter Norton Symphony Space in NYC and on tour. A co-production of Symphony Space and WNYC Radio.”

I’m not quite sure where I picked up on it, but the programming has been good enough to encourage me to set aside an hour every week to sit and listen to it.

The first episode which caught my attention was one where Patricia Kalember, a regular reader at Selected Shorts, read Donna Tartt’s short story Ambush. The story, a bittersweet tale about the friendship of a little boy and girl in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, had been featured in the 2006 Best American Short Stories. Although a stranger to the various accents, I was engrossed at the remarkable ease with which Ms. Kalember switched between them and narrated this beautiful tale. You can hear the episode here. (Needless to add, I have since added Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch to my to-read list)

But the episode which really nailed the deal for me was the one featuring none other than Mr. Spock himself! Leonard Nimoy, in an episode titled An Alien and a Gentleman, reads Etgar Keret’s Good Intentions, followed by Evelyn Waugh’s The Man Who Liked Dickens. In the former, Nimoy speaks in the voice of the narrator, a hitman who has been contracted to kill the only man who was ever kind to him. In the latter, he is chilling as the tribal chief who wishes to keep reading Dickens’ works over and over again. I won’t spoil the fun for you; listen to the episode here.

An additional clincher is that these episodes are recorded live, and you can hear the audience ‘participate’ in the reading through their reactions. Close your eyes as you listen to the podcast, and you are transported as an audience member of the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York.

Prior to Selected Shorts, I hadn’t read any of these stories and also hadn’t heard about these authors. As I subscribed to the podcast, I smiled as I realised that books were reinventing themselves in the digital age. Survival of the fittest, as they say.

Book Review – “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Book: Gooseberries (Little Black Classics #34)

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 2015

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Rs. 34 (Flipkart) / Rs. 46 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

I was in a bookstore the other day, browsing for a gift for a friend. I chanced upon a shelf which displayed some of the books from Penguins’ recently published Little Black Classics compilation. What a fantastic selection of books it seems to be! At 50 bucks a piece, each of these seemed like a perfect companion for the monsoon season along with a cuppa of cappuccino.

Within these, I spotted one which was a collection of three short stories by Anton Chekhov. Curious, because I hadn’t read any stuff by him thus far, I picked this one up.

The three stories in this book are The Kiss, The Two Volodyas and Gooseberries.

The Kiss is a beautiful little short story about a meek man, who almost seems a non-entity to his companions, experiencing uncommon joie de vivre when he is the recipient of an unlikely kiss. Although with a tricky ending, I liked the idea of the “little guy” finding some joy in his life and all the emotions, thoughts and doubts that he goes through, almost thoroughly unmindful of the world around him.

The Two Volodyas was a story I would’ve loved to have heard as a radio dramatisation. It tells us of Sofya, who has recently married an older man named Vladimir, in spite of having been madly in love with her childhood friend, also named Vladimir. The two gentlemen, nicknamed Big Volodya and Little Volodya respectively, even share a somewhat notorious reputation when it comes to women. The story is about the misgivings of Sofya about her marriage and how she tries to make sense of her situation as she looks at the lives of two other women who have, so to speak, chosen diametrically opposite lives in a similar condition.

Gooseberries, from which this collection gets it’s name, is a story of two brothers and how differently they choose to define happiness. Although, I didn’t quite get why this needed to be a story within a story. But it was a nice little tale all the same.

A quick, fun read and there’s little more that I can ask of a book of short stories.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about Gooseberries on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart or for your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)