Tag: Short Stories

by Abigail Ulman

Short stories, about young women- teenagers, or early twenties. All of them, far as I could tell, immigrants or students here in the US from abroad. I picked this one at random because the catalog said it was set in San Francisco, though some are in other places- Philadelphia, New York- in one story we’re never told where the girls are, because they don’t know themselves. I don’t quite know how to describe these. They felt very real and present- texting and smart phones, gender issues, human trafficking- and yet reminded me acutely of what it was like to be young, to be a university student, even though my experience in San Francisco was not like this (I didn’t go to clubs and bars, was never part of the dating scene, ha). I’m trying to figure out why these stories affected me so- sticking in my mind even though I found some of them distasteful (when described sex in too much detail). They depict girls and young women who are shallow, thoughtless, and make bad decisions- and yet they’re also victims of a system, of society and expectations and boredom. They can show streaks of kindness, or sudden insightful moments that seem beyond their years. In brief:

“Jewish History”- In history class students are asked to share experiences from Holocaust survivors in their families. Anya (from Russia) doesn’t have a story to tell. Then at home her parents remark on how she should appreciate what she’s got, as they went without and suffered for so many years, before they could emigrate. So next day Anya tells about the hard time her family went through (including her mother’s miscarriage), but is shut down in class- her story of suffering doesn’t count, it’s from the wrong era.

“Chagall’s Wife”- Sascha unexpectedly runs into her middle-aged teacher outside of school- sees him in a cafe and approaches to say hello. They end up spending the entire afternoon together- viewing art in a museum, going to a movie theater- and in the end, the reader suspects something else might happen, as he invites her to “go somewhere else”.

“The Withdrawl Method”- Claire finds out she’s pregnant, even though she thought she and her boyfriend were being careful. She bounces around between different casual friends- sharing her plan to get an abortion- and their responses are so varied. Flippant, cautionary, dismissive, angsty. She temporarily latches onto a different guy- met totally at random- he’s very levelheaded and kind about it, but seems a little confused by her. (I didn’t really get the point of this one).

“Warm-Ups”- four young Russian gymnasts are chosen to go with their coach to a conference in America, where they will perform to show off the skills he’s promoting. It seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, and Vera begs her parents to let her go- expenses are covered! But when they finally get there- barely able to speak or read English- she and the other pre-teen girls end up locked in a room that they suspect isn’t a hotel, and their coach has disappeared in a different taxi.

“Same Old Same As”- Ramona’s in therapy after suffering a bad injury from a space heater that caught fire and burned her leg. She tells the therapist about a moment when her step-father helped her out of the bath during her recovery care, and how uncomfortable it made her feel, and then starts describing the incident to others as sexual abuse. The story gets spread around school, she’s shocked at the amount of attention she gets, and other girls start sharing their stories with her- of men touching them inappropriately, or flashers, boys who casually convinced them to do things they didn’t really want to (sometimes in front of others), a cousin of a friend who was date raped, etc. She realizes that her experience was not unique- but also that hers wasn’t as serious? and then things escalate when a friend’s parent reports Ramona’s incident to the school- she finds herself at a meeting to determine if they should call child protection services.

“The Pretty One”- This girl is suddenly captivated by a guy she sees in a club. She finds out his name, his friends, where he works, and convinces him to date her. Even though they have nothing in common, she forces herself into his group of friends, his interests, etc- trying so hard to make it work when it’s obvious it never will.

“Head to Toe”- Two friends start to feel uninterested in all the usual parties, girl drama and shopping sprees. They ask their parents to take them back to a horse camp they’d been to as kids together. They’re put in a cabin with three younger girls- nine and ten-year-olds (which is a huge age difference when you’re fourteen). They enjoy riding the horses, and snub the younger girls until find them fighting and in tears after a game of “telling secrets.” The older girls smooth things over in what I thought was a very thoughtful manner, but later when they’re relating it to their own friends back home, they are completely dismissive and then fall right back into the party scene. I liked this one, until the end of it.

“Plus One”- I didn’t get this. At all. Girl has been writing a blog forever, gets an offer on a book deal. Has trouble writing and starts to feel terrified of the deadline. So she decides to get pregnant so she’ll have an excuse not to work. She convinces a friend- who is gay of all things- to be the father- and then has the baby, against everyone’s advice to stop this awful plan. And then her whole life changes when the baby arrives. The ending relieved me (I was worried it would take a different turn) but also left me wondering: why?

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here”- Foreign student from London who’s been living in San Francisco, is travelling back there after a vacation somewhere else, and gets detained at the airport by homeland security. They don’t tell her much but it becomes apparent she’s overstayed her time as a student and is suspected of trying to actually immigrate. She spends hours being questioned (in a maddeningly circular conversation) and then is detained overnight in jail with a Russian woman who is even more confused than she is. Returned to the airport the following morning, not sure where she’s going to end up, the whole thing baffling, stressful, frightening and surreal.

I’m leaving out so many details- these were like little snippets of life, and they interlaced in a loose manner- a character from one story would refer to someone in another- as if they knew each other outside these pages. I kind of want to read some of them over again, even though there were parts that made me uncomfortable. I did feel like some of the stories dropped off suddenly- did Sascha go with her teacher home to his apartment? was the ending of “Warm-Ups” really heading where I thought it was?- but I suspect the author did that to maintain a sense of tension, which I surely felt.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
354 pages, 2015

and Other Stories

by Norman Maclean

I gave up on this book thirteen years ago, yet kept it on my shelf. Because it’s one of my father’s favorites, and I felt like I owed it a second chance. Finally got around to that and I’m very glad I did. Not sure if it just comes from being older, or from being in a different mindset, or that I’ve kept fish now, so thinking about what a fish under the water might be thinking, interests and amuses me instead of drawing a blank. It was a completely different reading experience this time around, and one I appreciated. The wording is beautiful and the imagery lyrical even though what is described, sometimes rough or unpleasant. The title is from the first novella in the book, about two brothers and their father. The brothers are passionate about fly fishing and the book circles around several fishing trips- one with just the brothers, another with a brother-in-lawn invited along (though they don’t really want his company but feel obliged) and the last with their now-aging father. A number of things are deftly yet indirectly described so well- the family dynamics, the companionship and undercurrent of competition between the brothers, the beauty of the landscape, the artistry of how they fish- calculating where the fish are in the water, what kind of fly and casting method might land them. I don’t know much about fly fishing but reading about it here was captivating. In a slow, dreamy kind of way the book is like the river itself- seeming calm and placid on the surface but a lot going on underneath, even violent at times. There’s also a heavily ironic theme of helping others– the narrator wants to help his brother, who doesn’t want to accept help, and they both struggle to speak clearly about it. They all seem to feel an urge to help the brother-in-law, even though they don’t really like him, and he accepts without much protest but doesn’t seem any the better for it. They love each other but can’t show it on the surface so their emotions spread widely unspoken again like the river spreading its influence through the land. At least, that was an impression I got.

The two other stories are shorter- one is about time the author spent as a younger man in a logging camp, and the other about time he worked with forest rangers, being sent alone up to a watch tower and on his way back down after a snowstorm resetting some downed power lines. Just as much of it is about what the work was like, the natural surroundings, and the people he works alongside- some of them he likes, a few in particular he doesn’t. Just as before, I didn’t really care for the parts about brothels or poker games, but everything else was pretty good reading. Thirteen years ago, I must have been in the kind of reading mood that had words just sliding past my eyes without comprehension: so much of this felt completely new this time. In fact, I liked it so much that for the first time in decades I’ve pulled out a pencil to mark some passages that really struck me:

Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.

All there is to thinking… is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there is no such place.

Rating: 4/5
217 pages, 1976

More opinions: Pages of Julia
anyone else?

Favorite Stories from a Vet\’s Practice 

by Jeff Wells, DVM

     A nice read from a veterinarian who worked in mixed animal practice, first in South Dakota, then in Colorado. Part memoir, mostly stories about the animals he treated, with a broad dash of humor. He tells about going through vet school, first days on the job, attempts to prove his knowledge and skills to the clients, and most of all about the animals in need. Funny or interesting case studies and the outcomes. Similar to James Herriot, if not quite the same quality (sometimes the humor got a tad tedious in my opinion). Most of the stories are about pet dogs and cats, though there are also cattle, potbellied pigs, and even a yak. Note: he doesn\’t shy away from telling how unpleasant some aspects of the job can be- in particular how much feces and other bodily fluids can get all over the place (quite literally). And while most of the stories have positive outcomes, not all the animals make it. Just a sampling of the stories: a supposed tomcat that surprised its family by having kittens, a puppy that ate too many grasshoppers, horses with injuries on their legs or faces, cows that need help birthing, dogs that repeatedly tackled porcupines, a cat that swallowed a fishhook, a hound that ate rat poison, an elderly cat that became diabetic. There\’s also an errant bison that escaped its field and needed to be sedated for re-capture before it bred all the neighbor\’s prized cows. I found that Wells wrote a second book titled All My Patients Kick and Bite, which I think I\’d also enjoy. 

Rating: 3/5                    226 pages, 2006

and other surprising true stories of zoo vets and their patients 

edited by Lucy Spelman and Ted Mashima

     I like reading about veterinary work. This collection about wildlife vet care is light reading (ie: not the highest writing quality) with brief, intriguing chapters. The twenty-eight stories are each related by a different veterinarian, with a preface by the editor team to each of the five sections they\’re arranged into. Most, but not all, of the stories have happy endings. In a few the medical mystery presented by an ill animal was never solved. Among them are the titular rhioncerous with chronically sore feet who got a custom set of aluminum shoes, a panda with digestive issues, dung beetles infested with red mites, stranded dolphins, a hippo with an infected tooth, polar bear with a hernia, tiny poison dart frog with an injured eye, a young giraffe that needs a leg brace, elephant injured by a poacher\’s snare, a malnourished bear cub with weak bones, a goldfish with a tumor and weedy sea dragons that suffered \”the bends\” after an airline flight from Australia to Florida. I think my favorite though, was the story about a moray eel donated by a bartender to a public aquarium when it outgrew its home tank. The eel hid in the rocks of its new home and refused to eat for weeks on end. The aquarium staff finally called the original owner to ask what might tempt the eel to eat. He came to visit the aquarium and when the eel saw him, it came out of hiding and swam up and down the tank glass in front of the man, finally taking food when he offered it. That story warmed my heart. 

Rating: 3/5                310 pages, 2008

by Larry Niven

     I think I got this book at a library discard sale or thrift shop- where I recall snatching it up immediately. I recognized it was book I\’d read decades ago as a teenager. It\’s a collection of short stories by sci-fi writer Niven, in which he diverges more into fantasy (I\’ve never read any of his sci-fi). The first part of the book was very familiar on this re-read, the second half not. (I don\’t know whether that means this was originally a DNF for me).

It has seven short stories. The first five are about a time-traveller named Svetz who goes from the distant future into the past to collect animals for his employer, at the capricious whims of an all-powerful idiotic ruler. By some odd shift, the time machine keeps sending him into alternate versions of the past, where fantastical beasts exist. In Svetz\’ time, animals of any kind have long been extinct and he only has a few old illustrations to base his search on. In the first story he brings back a unicorn, thinking it\’s a horse. This tale also had a fun quirk of suggesting that Svetz\’ appearance to some locals he ran into might have caused them to think he was an angel, from the light bouncing off the \’balloon\’ that holds breathable air around his head (because the future has such a polluted environment humanity evolved to, that now he can\’t breathe the cleaner air of the past) or that a girl he met would start the idea of witches on broomsticks when he left his \’flight stick\’ behind and mused if she would try to use it. Also, he attempts to retrieve a gila monster in another trip, and brings back a fire-breathing dragon for the menagerie
In the second story he is looking for a whale, finds and struggles with a vast sea serpent, and in the end retrieves Moby Dick, sporting injuries and broken spears. In the third story (my least favorite because its premise was so absurd I couldn\’t suspend disbelief at all), Svetz gets an ostrich from the past. A scientist presumes the ostrich is a neonatal form of a different, much larger bird- and does something to this individual ostrich to make its genetics change so that it literally grows into a giant roc. The fourth story has Svetz collecting an arctic wolf that turns out to be a werewolf. In that journey he also meets men who evolved from wolves, who keep primitive humanoids as pets and guard animals (they\’re very good at throwing rocks). In the fifth he encounters the character of Death, as a ghostly skeletal figure that grapples with him in the time machine and argues about things. He has to regain control to return safely. (This was my least favorite of the time travel stories).
In all of these I rather enjoyed the humor, how inept Svetz seems when at the same time he usually manages to survive these wild creatures attacking him and actually bring them back to his future time intact. He grumbles about his employer\’s unreasonable demands and has difficulty with changing technology which isn\’t explained to him (as the time machine gets updates and new features). The feel of it reminded me of 1960\’s Star Trek episodes, and all the time-travel jargon brought to mind Doomsday Book.
At the end of the book are two novellas, Flash Crowd and What Good Is a Glass Dagger? I am pretty sure that when I was a teen Flash Crowd was completely over my head- but as an adult I found it an interesting premise, if a bit dull as a storyline. It posits a future where vehicles are obsolete (except for small airplanes and motorbikes used for fun) because teleportation has been developed. All over the world people can literally go anywhere instantly by stepping into a glass booth and dialing a number. It\’s narrated by a news reporter who comments on not only how cityscapes have changed (he remembers when cars still existed in his childhood) but how the instantaneous travel has affected human society as a whole. It all revolves around a riot he witnesses at a mall- and is blamed for instigating with his hasty reporting. Refusing to accept that, he claims the \’displacement booths\’ are the main problem- because they enable people to instantly converge on a scene in huge numbers. Another part of the story demonstrates how this also affects the environment when it draws people in sudden hordes to see a natural phenomenon, or to swarm exotic retreats that once were difficult to access. Mostly though it\’s the reporter investigating what\’s behind the manufacturing of \’displacement booths\’ and how they actually work. A lot of those details I didn\’t really follow, but since I couldn\’t judge if the science behind teleportation would be plausible as described, I was able to go along with it and just enjoy the story.
The final novella, What Good Is a Glass Dagger? is a setup for a world the author details in other novels, which I\’m not familiar with. It has a werewolf pitched into a thirty-year struggle with a wizard who placed a glass dagger in his heart when he was caught attempting thievery. The werewolf guy then spends years travelling trying to find someone who can remove the dagger, but he\’s hampered by having to avoid areas where magic won\’t work- and the wizard has a device that can drain magic out of the world- imperiling all the magical creatures. I don\’t know if it was my mood or what by the time I reached this story, but although many readers state this was their favorite piece in the collection, it didn\’t really hold my interest. I skimmed a lot of it. I might read it again at a later date; keeping this one on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5              212 pages, 1973

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Fair warning: there are a lot of SPOILERS in this post. I tell what happens because I think many readers would like to know ahead of time that A LOT OF ANIMALS DIE in these tales. Akin to Jack London\’s writings, there\’s plenty of fighting and mistreatment. Seton claims that his animal stories are based on fact, however I assume they are embellished with detail. Not quite sure how all the animal protagonists qualify as \’heroes\’ yet they are compelling stories. I actually started reading this one right after The Triumph of Seeds, but then between each story in this volume, I picked up another book as follows:

\”The Slum Cat\”- life of an alley cat, with remarkably pretty markings. At first the story is just about the cat\’s life, how it grows up, daily search for food, avoiding bigger meaner cats, etc. Then the cat starts hanging around what sounds like a disreputable shop that sells pet birds. The seller comes up with an idea to fob off the alley cat as a rare pedigreed import at a local fancy cat show. Everyone is taken in, and the cat gets sold to a wealthy family, who do some remarkable mental gymnastics to excuse every ill-mannered and anti-social behavior the cat exhibits in their nice home. The cat is well-fed and pampered but hates it all and longs to return to its alley. Eventually it escapes and makes its way back home. Story doesn\’t quite end there, though! After this one I read Maverick Cats.
\”Arnaux\” is about a homing pigeon. The bird lives in a loft that appears to have multiple owners- and the story describes how the pigeons are kept and flown. Different from nowadays (which I only know from reading a general nonfiction book on pigeons). The birds must have excellent navigational skills, endurance and smarts, to make it home again. There\’s one bit where a pigeon takes a message to get help for a ship stranded at sea, but most of it is about regular homing pigeon races. One bird is less attractive and smaller than the rest, but the fastest racer in the loft. In part of the story this bird gets captured and shut into a different loft on his way home- by a fancier who doesn\’t intend to actually steal him, but to breed him and then let him go again. He ends up staying in the strange loft for years before escaping and heading straight on home again. But then the pigeon meets a sudden and cruel end. I\’m sure Seton just means to show how life is not always kind and fair, but still, you might not want to read this story to a sensitive child. Following this one I read A Pigeon and a Boy.
\”Badlands Billy: the Wolf That Won\” is about a large wolf that preys on cattle so hunters are always after him. The first part of the story tells how he grows up as a pup, looses his mother and is raised by another wolf, his foster-siblings die from poisoning so then he gets all the milk and grows larger than most. Looses his foster mother at the hand of man as well but is old enough to fend for himself. Soon gains the attention of men from killing cattle- the second half of the story is mostly from human viewpoint, how they hunt down the wolf with dog packs. In this one the wolf is victor, but still it\’s unsettling to read how all the dogs are killed by the wolf (the author warns you ahead of time this is coming, in case you want to stop reading!) Not one of my favorites. After this one I read Flight of the White Wolf.
\”The Boy and the Lynx\”- there\’s a boy visiting some friends (a young man and his two sisters) who live in a small cabin in northern Canada. Out in the middle of the forest. Kid has gone there to recuperate his health, and is having a fine time until they all get ill. (The description of the fever and chills they suffered reminded me instantly of a scene in Little House on the Prairie). Completely debilitated by the illness, they\’re all mostly bedridden and start to run out of food. At the same time there\’s a lynx living nearby, has a den with two kittens. The lynx is near starving because rabbit population has crashed. Lynx starts coming to the cabin to steal chickens, and then gets bolder. The boy has seen the lynx a few times in the forest, but now weak and sick he has a hard time recognizing the fierce animal that comes into the cabin to eat the food off their table at night. There\’s a final confrontation, and even though it escapes alive, the lynx gets the worst of it in the end. The final scene in this story is very grim, and probably also very realistic. I couldn\’t stop picturing it. I don\’t have a book on my shelf specifically about lynx or even a bobcat, so next I read Wild Cats.
\”Little Warhorse\”- When I first glanced through the table of contents, thought this was about a wild horse. Nope, it\’s a jackrabbit. One larger, faster, smarter than all the rest. The rabbit has his speed and hiding places and quick maneuvers to evade dogs and coyotes that chase it. But then humans hold a rabbit drive. The whole town gathers to beat the shrubbery and drive all the wild rabbits into a kind of corral. Hundreds are simply slaughtered, but those that catch people\’s eye are set aside and taken to use in greyhound coursing. Which usually means the dogs kill the rabbits, while people on the sidelines are betting on the dogs. Our jackrabbit excels here, too- outrunning the dogs time and time again, gaining admiration from the crowd who dub him Warhorse. The rabbit man (whose job is to take care of jackrabbits that haven\’t been used yet) argues that Warhorse has earned his freedom. The dog people all want to pit their greyhounds against him, so they agree on a set number of matches after which if the jackrabbit is still alive, it can be set free. The rabbit gets holes punched in his ears to mark each race won. But then they argue for more races, because other people are now eager to pit their dogs against this rabbit too. Rabbit man gets into a fight over it. So in this one the main animal character survives in the end, but a ton of his fellow rabbits died for sport. The Adventures of Peter Cottontail was my next read.
\”Snap: the Story of a Bull-Terrier\”- man owns a fierce little bull-terrier dog that is vicious to everyone. It took him a week to earn the dog\’s trust. He\’s the only one who can handle it safely, and the dog is always super eager to fight any other dog it meets. Man visits a cattle ranch on business and goes along on some wolf hunts; the ranchers are no longer allowed to poison wolves so track them down to mitigate livestock losses, but their dogs won\’t actually grapple with the wolf. They have foxhounds to trail the scent, greyhounds to chase, and great danes and wolfhounds to close in the fight- these dogs working together can get coyotes but not the wolf. So the main character brings his bull-terrier along. It is slower than the other dogs (having shorter legs) but once upon the wolf, dives into the fight without hesitation. The men are glad to finally kill a wolf, and admire the bull-terrier\’s bravery, but the dog takes serious injuries. Sorry to say this is another one where the animal dies. I read a juvenile fiction book called Grip: a Dog Story next and that was a very fit pairing.
\”The Winnipeg Wolf\” is about a wolf that\’s taken from its den when its mother and littermates are all killed for bounty. The young wolf is chained up outside a saloon where people amuse themselves by setting their dogs on him and poking him with sticks. A bratty child flees his irate father into the wolf\’s shelter, and instead of attacking the animal defends him. Soon the boy and the wolf are stout companions, even though the wolf is always tied up. Eventually it gets free, is harrassed by people and chased by dogs, but never caught again. When the kid gets sick and dies from a fever, the lonely wolf hangs around town, never leaving into the wilderness. It continues to hate men and dogs but never will harm children. However the townsmen enjoy pitting their dogs against the wolf, over and over until there\’s a final fight with a whole scrum of dogs against the one wolf. Guess how it ends. After this one I read The Dog with Yellow Eyes.
\”Legend of the White Reindeer\”- I don\’t quite know what to say about this one. It\’s set in Norway, about a white reindeer which is born in a herd that is annually inspected by men to pick animals out for training to pull sleds. The white reindeer is big and strong (it fought off a wolverine as a yearling, with the help of its mother), so of course attracts attention. It is taken into captivity and trained, but retains its fierceness and will turn on any man that mistreats it. A lot of this story was a jumble to me though- there were so many unfamiliar place names and foreign terms I had trouble following it. At one point there are races, of reindeer and horses respectively, and the white reindeer does so well it is put in a race against the fastest horse. Then there\’s a lot of doings among men it seems there was a misunderstanding and someone was going to turn traitor- the white reindeer was harnessed to take him carrying a message but instead of going where he was supposed to the reindeer ran off into the wilderness up a steep trail he\’d often followed as a young free animal, and they were both lost in a storm, never heard of again. Which was beneficial to the country. I didn\’t get it. 
Well, in spite of all the dismal treatment animals get in these stories, and the brutal fights, nevertheless I found them engaging and lively, with wonderful descriptions. Seton just is a darn good storyteller. Except for the last about the reindeer, they all stuck in my head vividly. Really like the illustrations, too. I think my favorite was probably \”Slum Cat.\”
Rating: 3/5                   362 pages, 1901

More Poetry and Prose by Nurses
edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer

This was among a box of books my sister once gave to me (she\’s a nurse). It\’s a collection of poetry, short stories and a few essays written from personal experiences. (There\’s a prior volume called Between the Heartbeats). As I\’m not terribly keen on poetry, and the book has more than twenty authors, this was a rather uneven read for me. Some pieces just didn\’t speak to me at all, or were difficult for me to connect to. Others were downright disturbing, or very very sad. Especially of innocent people suffering, stricken by illness or worse injured by outright cruelty. The stories and poems span a wide range of nursing experiences- from students practicing their technique to men or women years into the job, or others looking back after a long career. There are nurses in the usual hospital setting I would expect, but also many stories from remote areas in poor countries, from refugee camps, from the front lines in battle zones. There are stories of frustration and burnout, of exhaustion and misunderstandings. And also those of tenderness, of compassion and deep caring. Quite a few tell of a particular patient or experience that had a profound impact on an individual nurse. I skimmed over a few, puzzled over others, but found many resonating with sensitivity or tense with discomfort, letting me glimpse what it\’s like to do such work.

Several that really struck me: \”The Color of Blood\” by Victoria May Collett- how a scrub nurse experiences working alongside a renowned heart surgeon- the thrill and stress and strain. \”Water Story\” a poem by Cortney Davis. \”We Do Abortions Here\” by Sallie Tisdale- the subject is exactly that. And these lines from \”What Nurses Do: the Marriage of Suffering and Healing\”:  The rhythm of a heart repeats itself like vows / in a chapel full of light, but we are gathered / here because this man\’s heart choked after forty years /  . . . and now something as old as love / must be the pencil that helps the heart write / its good-byes across our screen.

Rating: 3/5                           269 pages, 2003

by Ben K. Green

I know I read this book long ago as a teen, found at the public library. So when I came across it recently in a discard sale, snatched it up eager to see how it compared to my fond memory. It was a good read- enjoyed all over again.

It\’s a collection of short stories written by a man who traded horses and mules for a living, back when they were the major form of transportation and power in America (although a few stories feature early cars, or tractors first coming into use). The stories are mostly with a little twist- where the man thought he made a good trade but found out the horse had a hidden fault or behavior problem, sometimes thought he had sneakily played a poor horse off on a better trade, only to discover the animal he\’d acquired wasn\’t as advertised, either.

There were mules painted to look like young, grey dapple, a gypsy mare trained to lie down and groan when saddled, a spoiled lady\’s riding horse that wouldn\’t go more than a few yards from the barn. Many times the author showed how he could make the best of a poor situation, due to his understanding of equine behavior- train them out of their bad habits, or cleverly corral a bunch of wild mules that he\’d been given in trade because the prior owner assumed he would never be able to catch them. Most of the tales take place in Texas, a few further south- he traveled a lot in his work. There\’s one story of a match race on a native American reservation. Sometimes, Green couldn\’t make good on a bad trade, and foisted the poor quality mule or horse off on another unsuspecting person. But there are good, honest transactions in here too, where both parties were well satisfied and respected each other.

I was kind of shocked to read an instance of wasted, sickly horses fed arsenic to fatten them up (and have since read online that inorganic arsenic is commonly used in animal feed to make hogs and chickens grow faster). And the last story surprised me with a little detail that made sense of a totally unrelated book I also read and loved as a kid, An Edge of the Forest. In that one, a herd of deer feeds in a valley that makes them all sleep like death. I always puzzled over that. Here in one of Green\’s stories, some wild unbroken horses were put to graze in a valley of \”sleepy grass\” so they could be pawned off as tamed and gentle. There was something in the grass that made the animals lethargic. I\’ve looked it up, and it\’s a real thing. In some ways, this book also reminded me of Mr. Sponge\’s Sporting Tour.

Rating: 3/5             304 pages, 1963

by Gerald Durrell

Five short stories, wonderfully descriptive and intriguing, often had me laughing. While I (mostly) enjoyed reading them, I think it\’s really best to start somewhere else, if you\’re new to reading Durrell. They don\’t have a lot of introduction, are unrelated incidents that Durrell realized later in life he had never fit into any of his other books, so he put them together here. His brother suggested the title, as a joke- it has nothing to do with the contents.

\”The Birthday Party\” is a story from Durrell\’s childhood on Corfu, where his family decide to give their mother a birthday outing in a boat, which turns into a huge mishap. I felt sorry for the woman, and the only reason I could laugh during this one was I knew that it all came right in the end. It\’s packed with amusing (or insufferable, however you like to look at it) characters, but it\’s really more funny if you already know how these people relate to each other from the Corfu trilogy.

\”A Transport of Terrapins\” – This was my favorite of the stories. Set later on, when Durrell\’s family had returned to England, and he found his first job as assistant in a pet shop. He loves the animals and wants to enrich their dull cages, but has to find a way to do so without offending the owner (who doesn\’t have a lot of interest in or knowledge about the animals himself, but as the boss has his pride). Later in the story Durrell meets another eccentric shop owner in town who keeps birds, with a curious way of running his shop. Then there\’s an older gentleman he meets on the bus over a spilled box of baby turtles, who invites him to his house to play a game. He is at first suspicious of this man\’s intentions, but it turns out to be honest and they strike up a nice friendship over strategy games with tin soldiers.

\”A Question of Promotion\”- Jumping ahead years, this one takes place in Africa, when Durrell was in the Cameroons collecting wild animals. That\’s not the focus. Most of the story is about plans he helped an acquaintance make for a dinner party to impress a visiting District Officer. There\’s pages and pages of conversation between Durrell and the other people he gathered together to help plan the meal- difficult because they lacked supplies- but it is lively and amusing enough. When they event finally takes place, all their careful planning meets with one huge accident. It was hilarious. However this was during time of British colonial rule, so there are unfortunately some attitudes towards both native servants and women, which I know some readers would find offensive.

\”A Question of Degrees\”- the one story that had me cringing. Durrell is ordered by his doctor to take some rest, sent to a place he calls \”the loony bin\” but the doctor insists sternly is \”a highly respectable nursing home that specializes in nervous complaints\”. So, mental health in-patient. While there, Durrell suffers a series of very bad nosebleeds, that won\’t stop, so he is sent to the hospital. Twice. The first time, the taxi takes them to the wrong place. The doctor is careful and efficient, and it\’s all over quickly. The second time, the doctor is very rough with crude methods that leave Durrell in worse pain than ever- and it ends with him staggering back to his bed in the inpatient facility, given a shot of drugs to wipe out the pain and fall asleep, wishing he\’d gone to the wrong hospital again instead. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but it had me feeling sick the way some Mr. Bean episodes do.

\”Ursula\”- The last story is about a young woman Durrell dated for a time. She was incredibly vivacious, with a loud animated way of speaking that always drew attention whenever they went out. Durrell soon found himself in a number of embarrassing situations, especially the day he took her to a Mozart concert and she brought a dog in a basket. Of course it escaped. The nice thing about this story is that Durrell comes to see the tenderhearted, kind side of Ursula, even though her manner is sometimes off-putting to others. I had a very personal reaction to the this one. Like the main character, I sometimes use the wrong word when speaking. In my case, it\’s often mispronunciation rather than the malapropisms Ursula frequently uttered- but I could oddly sympathize with her. I don\’t angrily insist I\’m always right, like she did- but I do feel criticized and sometimes made the fool, depending on how the correction is worded. So the end of this book made me feel oddly unsettled and uncomfortable, because I identified with a character I felt the author intended us to laugh at.

Rating: 3/5                 216 pages, 1971

Vol. 4 
by W. Somerset Maugham

Thirty short stories. Surprisingly, I found Maughum\’s short stories really satisfying- they didn\’t leave me wishing a whole lot more or feeling adrift, like I usually do after reading short pieces.

Most of these stories take place in Malaya, during British rule, and are about Europeans stationed there, their wives and sometimes families. Several are situated in a nearby Asian countries, a few in America or England. They are all quite astute with character development and really intriguing, in spite of being so brief (a page or two, up to twenty in some cases). Sometimes it took me a while to get into the tale- often the crux of the subject is approached in a roundabout way- the narrator telling how he met a certain person, got a certain impression, had curiosity piqued, found out so much more later, here\’s the whole story wrapped up then, etc. They are about scandals, folks who have certain oddities, or get into troublesome situations by chance, or who do astonishing things that no one expected. Maugham himself said (in the intro) that he liked to write about people who were strange or got themselves into unusual circumstances, being more interesting than the majority who led quiet, ordinary lives. A lot are about women or men unfaithful to each other- some hiding it all their lives. Stories about men in different situations and how they struggled to get along with odious characters they had to work with. Quite a number grouped together about men in a French penal colony (reminded me immediately of Papillon). One quite unlike the others- more fairy-tale like in tone, about a princess with a wild nightingale she tamed, that her sisters convinced her to lock up in a cage . . . My favorite was the last one, about a young man who loved natural history and was sent to a remote place to work in a museum, went out into the jungle to find specimens, got into a pickle when his superior\’s wife began flirting with him. I did smile a lot when I ran into characters that loved books, in these pages. They stood out to me.

I wonder if most of these stories are based on real people or incidents the author heard about- it certainly sounds like he traveled about talking to and observing people, and then wrote based on that; I\’ve heard tell it\’s more or less embellished fact. I borrowed this book from my brother-in-law while on holiday- it\’s the fourth volume of a complete collection of Maugham\’s short stories- someday I\’d like to read all the others.

Rating: 4/5              464 pages, 1951

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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