Tag: Short Stories

Volume 2

by W. Somerset Maugham

I really enjoyed these short stories- except for the ones I skipped! More on that in a moment. My opinion of Somerset Maugham’s writing remains the same: his characters are interesting, the setup slow but detailed and deliberate, the endings often leave you wondering something or chuckling at an irony, very satisfying either way. Most have some shrewd observations on human nature. All very well-written. I’d like to find the other half of this collection, but now think I’ll probably get some overlap, as the fourth volume of collected stories I read earlier, was from a different compliation.

The stories in this book were set in England, a few about individuals who travelled abroad, some sounded like the narrator was Maugham himself- staying in a hotel, or talking to someone on a train journey. Often the first few pages would tell how he met someone, and then that someone would relate the interesting story about a friend or acquaintance. They are stories of relationships, of people living in a manner that defies their social class or expectations, of characters that are happy when everyone expects them to be miserable, or unhappy in what look like perfect circumstances from the outside. There’s a story about a popular female writer, all highbrow and artistic, who subtly snubs her quiet husband in the background- but in the end it turns out he does what he likes and is the better for it. Another is about a young man whose wealthy family has educated him to take a position in politics, but all he wants to do is be a professional pianist. There’s an apparently contentedly married woman who writes a very popular book of poetry, the husband is befuddled by it because he doesn’t understand poetry, but when he finally reads it to see what all the fuss is about, realizes it’s telling the story of an affair his wife had. In another, an important man in government is troubled by dreams where he’s in terribly embarrassing situations, and then the next day something always occurs which convinces him another person knows of the embarrassment- was it real? or just coincidence? My favorite was probably the story of the vicar who couldn’t read or write- in fact I re-told it (in much simplified form) to my husband on a drive.

The stories I skipped- a half dozen in the middle of the book- are probably the ones that would interest other readers most. They were all about a character named Ashenden, who is a spy. A quiet, aloof man who does his assignments never really knowing how the information he gathers relates to the larger picture. Each story is about some incident or mission he goes on. I read the first two in here, realized that espionage (for some reason I can never explain) actually bores me, and started skipping them- it only takes half a page to realize it’s an Ashenden story. I did read in entirety the one where he’s in a sanatorium recovering his health, more about the other patients around him and their relationships, than it is about himself actually.

Borrowed from my brother-in-law.

Rating: 4/5
518 pages, 1951

50 Dispatches from the New Farmer's Movement

by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo (editors)

Just the kind of book to get me hopeful and interested in gardening again, after a difficult summer. (I’m mostly ripping out diseased and bug-ridden plants now, hoping for better next spring). This book is a collection of thoughtful essays – just a few pages each- by small farmers new to the endeavor. From young couples to those starting out in their forties and fifties. People who inherited a small family farm or scraped together whatever they had to buy a piece of land or worked on leased soil not their own. Every kind of organization from tight-knit groups of volunteers and employees, to cooperative community workings, to a partnership that refuses to do anything requiring them to go beyond the power of their two pairs of hands. What they have in common is the effort put into growing good food. And what an effort it is. Economics, capricious weather, equipment troubles, financing woes, you name it. Then there’s the backbreaking work itself. The aggravating realities that most small farmers face, needing an off-the-farm job to make things work. The ideals they hold, the reasons they’re committed to keeping their operations small, to growing organic, to selling local. Mishaps, neighbor troubles, pest issues, struggles to deal with livestock as a first-timer- it’s all in here. Such a myriad of voices, but all on a subject I’ve been deeply interested in for a long time. The more I read about it the more I doubt I’d make it as an actual farmer, even though I love putting my hands in the soil and doing the hard work- so much of it is a balance of running a business and staying ahead of trends, there’s skills way beyond me and it’s all I can do to find time and solve the problems my little garden has! But I’m full of admiration for what these people have picked up, in the hardest time ever it seems. I’m inspired now to go to my local farmer’s market again – haven’t been there in a long time.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 2012

Transgender Teens Speak Out

by Susan Kuklin

This book has the stories of six transgender teenagers, narrated in their own words, from interviews with the author. Four of them contain photographs, a fifth has pictures that don’t show the face, and the sixth one requested no images at all. They were all in different stages of the transition process when the book was written. Some male to female, some female to male. One teen was non-binary and another intersex (very interesting to me, was reading the part where they described several doctors’ tests that showed they had a physiology not quite male or female, but literally something inbetween). These stories are so individual. Reading them will make you realize that of course, trans kids don’t fit any stereotype (no more than anyone else does!) Some of them came from well balanced, supportive families. Others struggled with bullying at school, family members who refused to speak to them, or couldn’t accept it when their child came out. Some had caring friends, others got the cold shoulder and had to forge new relationships. There’s kids in here who knew they were different from a very young age, and others who only realized it when they hit puberty. Their awareness and decisions on what to do about it all took different paths, too. One teen delves a lot into definition of words and muses on the injustice of how society defines things. Then you read about another who doesn’t care about that stuff at all, just wants to be a person happy in their own skin. That’s the common thread here. How they felt different than what they looked on the outside, and needed something to change about that. And how things became better, when that finally happened. For the most part.

There’s also an interview in the back, with a doctor who works at a trans clinic in New York. Only one chapter felt awkward to me, the final one, where the author interviewed the teen at a theater venue where he was performing. It didn’t feel as coherent and thorough as the other sections. Honestly, a few of the attitudes and opinions in this book took me by surprise, but overall I think it’s a great insight into what teens who don’t fit the binary role go through. What their daily lives, relationships with family and friends, and struggles to fit in are like. They just want to be themselves.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
182 pages, 2014

More opinions: Lindy Reads and Reviews
anyone else?

by Karen Russell

I was looking forward to this one, but ended up disappointed. Read the last story (which gave the book its title) first. It’s about a group of girls from a werewolf pack who are being assimilated into human society by a bunch of nuns. It was a great comparative read to Into That Forest, especially the girls’ wolflike behavior- pushing their ears into positions to communicate, lifting their hair up with hands to be like bristling fur. Made me think of Julie. It had interesting conflicts (one girl refuses to follow the nuns’ teachings and becomes outcast by the other girls, who are all in their way trying to adjust), and a satisfying enough ending. The rest of the stories in this book, well they just didn’t work for me. They were like urban fantasy gone feral, weird and twisted in a unique way. Something about them all reminded me of Geek Love (which personally, is not really a good thing). Just did not appeal here.

I tried, though. But in the end I only read two stories all the way through: the titular one about the wolf-girls, and one in the middle called “from Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration” about a pioneer family traveling in a wagon train- and the father was a minotaur, pulling his own wagon. I actually liked that one, strange as it was. The rest, couldn’t get more than a few pages in. There’s a family living in a Florida swamp with two sisters who wrestle alligators, an overnight camp for people with odd sleep disturbances, a community of retired people who live in decrepit houseboats and sign up with a program to receive visits from delinquent teenagers, among other strange settings. Just too strange and dark for me.

Rating: Abandoned
242 pages, 2006

More opinions:
Shelf Love
Vulpes Libris
The Reading Life
anyone else?

Honest Essays on Blood Sport

by David Petersen

The viewpoints of hunters. From collected essays, and a few book excerpts. They’re really varied. Most of them write about hunting deer or elk, sometimes pronghorn antelope. A few also include fishing and there’s discussions on hunting bears near the end of the book, also whales or seals in the north. Many different opinions and methods, from those who seek trophies and bragging rights, to people solely interested in getting meat to feed their families. The majority are very reasonable-sounding men who value feeling a connection to nature and the land, who recognize that all life depends on other life, and consider that taking one deer for a year’s supply of meat is less harmful to the environement and allows the animal a better life, than buying hamburger meat in the store from a cow that got fat in a feedlot. It almost persuades me to wish I had learned to stalk deer in the woods alongside my father, surely the skill and keen observation and patience needed is challenge enough. Some of the writings featured here are brisk and argumentative, some lean heavily on the side of proving things and get a bit technical or opinionated, many are just describing what a particular hunt was actually like. There’s even a few descriptions of things like men taking shots at grouse that feed on roadsides, taking fish from spawning streams by hand, shooting pen-raised birds released from towers, or quietly and unobtrusively poaching deer. Questionable perhaps, but here clearly pictured with only light criticism. Not all the writer’s voices resonated with me- some I found awkward or dull, but most gave me new things to think about, new ways to look at this topic. It’s getting shelved in my library right alongside Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America– as they seem to compliment each other.

Note on the publication date: it’s when the author compiled the works. Actual publication dates of the individual essays range from 1984 to 1996.

Rating: 4/5
332 pages, 1996

Inspirational Stories About Horses and the People Who Love Them

by edited by Jack Canfield, et al

Sometimes you just need an easy, feel-good read. Came across this book while browsing at the library a week or so ago, and got it on a whim. Enjoyed it way more than I expected to. I thought a lot of the stories would be cheesy, overly sentimental or with a religious bent, but surprisingly few of those. Most are heartwarming, even the ones with sad endings. They’re all just a few pages long, so perfect for reading in small snatches or late to bed. Submitted by everyday people, they tell how many lives have been touched by horses, or vice versa.

There are stories of little girls longing for a pony, what a struggle that is, or a dream come true, or how the horse affected their lives in ways unimaginable. There are stories of the effort in treating an ill or injured horse, or caring for an orphaned foal. And on the other side of things, stories about people with illness or emotional loss who are helped by their companionship with horses, as well as equine therapy for children with special needs, or struggling teens. There are people in this book who keep horses their whole lives, even when trying to also balance work and family, but then bittersweet stories of kids who outgrow their interest in horses, so the animal is then ridden by a younger sibling, or sold when the kid goes to college. A few stories of reunions years after the horse was sold, really heartwarming. Also some about neglected horses being rescued and nursed back to health, given a second chance. And then a few that were just plain funny. Such a wide range of subject matter, all revolving around the horses (although I think there was also one story about a mule). None of them really leap out at me, thinking back over the book. Though I did note how widely diverse the personalities of the horses themselves were! Some are sweet and gentle, patient with everything or extremely hardworking. Others are stubborn, badly behaved, wild and untamed or simply mischievous. I did skim a lot through the section on horse racing- tried but those just did not interest me at all.

One thing the book introduced me to- the racking horse. I’d heard of Tennessee walking horses, but didn’t know what this actually meant- the pace they do when racking. Looked up a few videos of a horse racking at high speed, and that really is something else. Makes me think of a windup toy, seeing them move like that!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
398 pages, 2003

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

More opinions: Books Are My Favorite and Best
anyone else?

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

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