Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The Darling”

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This Saturday I drew the eight of clubs from the handful of cards remaining in my deck from my 2011 project, “Deal me in!”. This card was assigned to a Chekhov story I and read once before many years ago as part of another spate of short story reading. I hadn’t marked the story as one that I found particularly good, but it WAS Chekhov, after all, so it possibly made my 2011 short story reading list on that merit.

The story deals with a woman, Olga Semyonovna – a stereotype of the woman who possesses little or no identity of her own unless she is attached to a man. In this story, Olga “goes through” a couple husbands and a married lover until at the end her devotion settles on the little boy, Sasha, who is the son of her last lover, a veterinary surgeon.

Chekhov has some great descriptions of how she comes to think of the men she loves. One of them, who ran kind of a town theater, was away during the evenings and Olga would lament his absence and when she heard the town’s frequent crackling and banging of fireworks, “…it seemed to her that it was Kukin struggling with his destiny, storming the entrenchments of his chief foe, the indifferent public.” Later, in a key paragraph, Chekhov describes her as wanting “a love that would absorb her whole being, her whole soul and reason – that would give her ideas and an object I life, and would warm her old blood.” It’s funny that, though it seems Chekhov intends her character to be a pitiable one, many (including the great Tolstoy, apparently) saw Olga as a personification of the feminine ideal. It seems to me that a woman with a mind and ideas of her own would be a treasure much more to be preferred…

The story left me sad, and not without some sympathy for Olga, the darling. What a life it must be to have no opinions or identity of one’s own!

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“Ladies and Gentlemen… The Doors!”

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No, no…. Not those guys….

Not long ago I wrote about a recent coincidental sequence of reading I’d done that all featured executions, of all things. The theme of recent weeks, apparently, is simply “doors.”

It all started over a month ago as I was listening to NPR, and they were interviewing author, Chris Bohjalian about his new book, The Night Strangers. Like many of us, I’m sure, I enjoy learning what the source idea of a story is. It turns out that in this case, the author and his family had not too long ago bought and moved into a large house in rural New Hampshire (or was it Vermont? I can never keep those two straight). One of the unique features of the house, we listeners learned, was that it featured a basement with a largely earthen floor (the one exception being where the laundry machines stood on a concrete slab). Not noticed initially by Bohjalian was a door in a remote corner that was nailed shut and apparently hadn’t been opened in many years. The curiosity such an object aroused in him was the kernel of the idea that grew into his novel, The Night Stangers. A story that I hoped would be perfect “Halloween Season” reading, but in the end was a bit of a disappointment.

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Later, I learned via another blog of the recently published horror story anthology, Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead, edited by Stephen Jones. I purchased this one “immediately” and am about five or six stories in thus far. In short, it is everything that I had hoped another recent purchase (The Haunting of Twentieth Century America) would be, but wasn’t. (how’s that for an awkward sentence?). Great, genuinely scary “ghost” stories! The third of which was titled “The Door,” written by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, a.k.a. Britain’s “Prince of Chill”(!) love that nickname!

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In this great story, a writer has purchased a 300-year old door from a lately demolished 16th century manor house. His grand plans for it involve replacing a cupboard(!) door with it (after enlarging the aperture) so that it will be facing his work desk. “It will inspire me!” he proudly tells his dismayed wife. The door had an “intricate pattern that seemed to grow more complicated the longer it was examined.” The man begins to play with his imagination, speculating on what kind of room the door must have led to in its heyday. “There was a certain eerie satisfaction in creating an imaginary world for the door to guard.”

Via his imagination (or was it becoming more than that?) he even is able to transport himself to that room of long ago that the door once served. Of course, and we knew it was coming, the door turns out to be a two-way portal (as all doors are, aren’t they?)… A great, very creepy story, inducing chills in me that proved the validity of the author’s nickname. There are other great stories in this book and, even though I’m only part way through, I highly recommend it.

Top Ten Tuesday – top ten unread books on my bookshelf

 

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Really? Only ten? At least i have a ton to choose from for this list… Okay, in no particular order:

1) Memory Babe (Gerald Nicosia) – The massive biography about Jack Kerouac. Several years ago I took it with me on a weekend getaway and read a couple hundred pages but, once I got home, never resumed reading. Why is a mystery because I love reading everything about Kerouac. Perhaps I need to return to the site of my former reading to be able to close the deal. (give me a moment while I make reservations…)

2) Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) – One of my most serious lapses in cultural literacy. Everybody has read this but me, it seems. To further complicate matters, I seem to have misplaced my copy when I redecorated/rearranged my place a couple years ago. Hopefully it’s not languishing at the bottom of some box I won’t open for another ten years. I should just buy an electronic copy and get started.

3) War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) – I almost bit the bullet a few years ago when a friend proudly announced he had “finished War and Peace.” Even though I ~hate~ that he has that over me, it hasn’t been enough to jump start me to read it myself. I almost hopped in a read along earlier this year but didn’t. The fact that it has 365 chapters (one for each day in the year) almost screams “reading project!” at me, but not even that has been enough to get me started.

4) The Ambassadors (Henry James) – Oh, Henry James… You are so hard to read and this one is so long. I don’t know if I’ll ever read it, but it may have the longest tenure of books that sit on my shelf and mock me for never having the wherewithal to read them…

5) The Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs) – I’ve had this awhile now too, and I’ve read tons of stuff by the “beats.” I’ve even read the tragic biography of Burroughs’s son (“Cursed at Birth”) but never read this one. From what I’ve read from other bloggers, this book is one of those love it or hate it books, so I guess I have some fear that I will find myself in the hate it camp when I finally get started. Someday.

6) The Divine Comedy (Dante) – How have I avoided this one? I’m relatively well read in terms of “The Classics” but somehow this one has escaped me. My curiosity about it was rekindled last year when I read the excellent novel, The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. (honorable mention here goes to Milton’s Paradise Lost which I’ve never read either).

7) The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) – My nephew and I informally pledged to read this last year. To my knowledge, he hasn’t started it either. My failure here is particularly acute since I signed up to receive this book via “Daily Lit” which emails you a small section each day to read. I have a hard copy too, which is probably what I’ll eventually read it from, but I haven’t “shut off” the emails yet so I get a constant, daily reminder of my slacking…

8) Robopocalypse (Daniel Wilson) – Bought after I heard some hype on NPR. It’s a topic I’m interested in as well, but for some reason I’ve only been able to execute a couple half-hearted false starts on this one.

9) The Antiquary (Sir Walter Scott) – I was on a big SWS kick about a year ago, and after reading Waverley and Guy Mannering this was next on the list. My failure here is sheer laziness and lack of fortitude. Scott is a little harder reading for me, and I just keep taking the path of least resistance and reading something else.

10) Villette (Charlotte Bronte) – She has spent years in my bedroom (on a bedside table). I guess at one point I thought, “I’ll just read some of this before I go to sleep every night and eventually I’ll finish it.” I’ve probably false started it a dozen times. The fact of the matter is Bronte requires more attention than my tired, pre bedtime mind can handle. Time to kick her out of the bedroom!

Bonus book: one that was on my bookshelf for years and years, but eventually escaped purgatory when I finally actually read (and loved!) it. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens.

Well, that’s a few of mine. I look forward to reading everyone else’s lists!

I See Dead People. They’re in London.

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Maureen Johnson’s novel, The Name of the Star

This book was an nice change of pace for me. A straggler into November from my seasonal “Halloween reading,” this YA book deals with an American girl from Louisiana who travels to a London boarding school for her senior year of high school. There, in addition to the many staple YA characters she encounters, she finds herself in the geographic center of a crime spree which features a repetition in nearly exact detail (time, place, victims) of the notorious crimes of none other than Jack the Ripper. How will she fit into her new environment? Why has she drawn the attention of the new Ripper? Will she survive? Where did her “strange” new roommate come from?

I should also mention also that this novel is the first in a series, the “Shades of London” series. It can be read independently, however, and you can look into the subsequent works if your reaction to this one leads you in that direction.

I enjoyed it, as I have most of the YA novels I’ve read the past couple years. (perhaps the fact that I only try one after it has first been vetted by my fellow book bloggers has something to do with this? 🙂 ) One element that I really liked was a surprise near the end when “the cavalry that comes over the hill” to intervene on behalf of our heroine was NOT what I was anticipating. At all.

Have you read this book? Or any others by Johnson? If so, I’d like to hear what you think. If you’re looking for an easy, scary – but fun – read, you might want to give this one a try.

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I’ve started Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

– unknown (I’ve seen it attributed to both Confucius and Lao Tzu)

Mathematically, of course, this quotation is quite true – although I wonder how many have actually completed a thousand-mile journey on foot. I actually remember using the quotation once with a stranger I encountered in Zion National Park, I think in 2004. I had been hiking up the West Rim Trail “all day,” and I was nearing the rim of the canyon when he came around the corner hiking down. He told me he had come from Lava Point, which is probably a good 10 miles further up the trail from where we were. He said cheerfully, “It’s amazing how far you can travel just by putting one foot in front of the other.” I responded with “Like they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!” This was an encounter that probably lasted all of ninety seconds, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Perhaps the relative isolation of encountering another human being has something to do with it, or perhaps it was just our joint realization of a “classic truth.”

(below: near the top of the canyon on the West Rim Trail)

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Anyway, I’m always reminded that quotation when I start reading a long book. Like this week when, thanks to Bellezza at her excellent blog, Dolce Bellezza, I was tempted into buying and downloading Haruki Murakami’s latest effort, 1Q84. My exposure thus far to Murakami has been only in the form of a couple of short stories that I read as part of my 2011 Short Story Reading Project. In one of the stories in particular (“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”) I caught a glimpse of his brilliance. I already had him tagged for additional reading, but when Bellezza gushed about him, I couldn’t help myself and he jumped to the top of my TBR list.

I’m about 320 pages into it thus far (of 1040 pages on my Nook reader) and have really been enjoying it. It’s quite unlike anything else read recently. I mean how would you react to this situation: You begin to notice some subtle differences in the world around you. It’s the same world you’ve always known but it becomes more and more clear that something has changed, and that everyone else remembers certain things a little differently than you do. This is what one of the two main characters, Aomame, encounters in the early chapters of the book, which is thus far being told from two viewpoints, her’s and the writer, Tengo’s, who are linked by a “minor” (well, not to Aomame) encounter when they were schoolchildren. They are also (at this point in my reading) on a collision course due to events happening in this slightly changed world of 1Q84 (not 1984, where the novel begins).

I’ve had a lot of stuff that I was supposed to get done this weekend, but instead my time has been hijacked by this novel. It’s somewhat sexually graphic at points, but as long as that isn’t something that “bothers” you, you might want to look into this book as well. I’m possibly being premature, but it will likely be one of the contenders for my favorite book of 2011. Stay tuned…

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More Short Stories Finished

After some effort this weekend, I’ve finally gotten caught up on my 2011 short story reading project. I now have only seven stories to go, and – if my calculations are correct – I also have seven Saturday’s left in 2011. I’ve even already started to assemble my stories for 2012, when I intend to have a new “deck” to draw from which to draw my random “story of the week.”

What stories have I read recently to catch up? So nice of you to ask! There were quite a few the past few days…

1) “The Cock Lane Ghost” by Howard Pyle

Although this one was in one of my short story anthologies, I’m not even sure it was intended as a work of fiction. It’s more just a recounting of a famous ‘haunting’ case in London where a young girl heard numerous “rapping/tapping” and “gnawing” noises when in bed in her home on London’s Cock Lane. Allegedly, this famous case was widely considered to be “real” even after it had been debunked upon closer examination. (So often is the case where the credulous cling to their initial beliefs). This “story” I largely considered a waste of time.

2) “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was a much more pedigreed short story, one that I’m sure many of you have heard of. The other two short works of Fitzgerald’s that I’ve read were more along the supernatural front, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” both of which were welcome additions to my collection of read stories. This one is the poignant tale of Charlie Wales, a formerly “dissipated” man who lost his fortune (in the market crash of 1929) and his wife (to suicide), leaving his daughter in the custody of his sister-in-law and her husband. Seemingly reformed and with his life back on track he is concentrating his efforts on reuniting with his daughter. Circumstances throw obstacles in his way during this sad tale. Descriptions of his “old life” led me to think he would have been at home as one of the people hanging out with the main character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

3) “H.P.” by S. Baring-Gould

This one was a ghost story quite dissimilar from all that I had perviously encountered. Not knowing anything about it, I wondered if the title referred to that master of horror, H.P. Lovecraft. But no, it refers to the ghost, “Homo Paleolithicus” (or something like that). An archaeologist is temporarily trapped amongst his excavations of a primitive skeleton by a cave in…

4) “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway

This one was recommended to me by fellow blogger, Jillian, over at A Room With a View (link on my blogroll). I read another Hemingway story earlier in the year as part of my project (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”) which I really, really liked and wrote a blog post about, after which I received several recommendations for other Hemingway stories to read. (I have a whole book of them!). This one was very sad as well, though, dealing with the return home of a soldier with what would today be called at least a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Harold Krebs’s thoughts on how different his once familiar world now is to him are fascinating.

5) “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett

I’d read this story years ago, but didn’t remember too much about it. In fact, over the years I think it had become muddled with a similar story I read (which I also don’t remember!). The story deals with a young girl, living in isolation with her mother in a modest cabin in the woods. One day, she encounters a young man walking in the woods with a gun. He is hunting birds, and collects them (stuffed by a taxidermist after he shoots them). He charms the girl at first, and when she learns that he is particularly interested in a White Heron, she hopes to gain his favor by determining the location of its nest. She does this after scaling the highest tree in the area (a passage described beautifully by Jewett). On her way back to meet the young man, however, she has second thoughts about revealing the bird’s location…

6) “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This was another favorite that I revisited for this project. When I first read it years ago, it kind of reminded me of the classic movie, Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman (yum yum), wherein an evil, scheming husband tries to convince his wife that she’s losing her mind. In this story, the husband’s motive is presumably innocent, but his attentions to his wife are having the same effect. Staying in a rented country manor for a few months, he chooses a room on the second floor as their bedroom. Unfortunately for his wife, who is “recovering” her health from what sounds like a mental imbalance or “hysteria,” the room contains the most disconcerting yellow wallpaper, which over the course of the story takes on a life of its own. Gilman’s description of the wife’s journey into “madness” is riveting.

7) “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver

A local book discussion group (whose meetings I keep missing) is actually meeting to discuss this story on Wednesday evening, so I’m glad it came up in my random order. A great short story dealing with two couples who are sitting around a dining room table drinking gin and tonics and musing over what the true meaning of love is, and what forms it may take. E.g. One of the women was previously in an abusive relationship but maintains her ex-husband loved her, while her current husband disagrees. The other couple are younger and have only been together for eighteen months, their love not yet having been fully “tested.” A thought provoking short story that made me thirsty for a drink of gin… I don’t know much about Carver, but I seem to recall he struggled with alcohol-related problems, which is maybe why his descriptions of this “drinking party” seem so realistic and thirst-inducing. 🙂

Have you read any of these stories or authors? Which are your favorites? Can you recommend any stories for me to include in my 2012 Short Story reading schedule?

“Three Are Ye, Three Are We…”

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Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “The Three Hermits.”

This is a great little short story that I first read back in 1994. It was part of an anthology I own called “The World of Fiction.” Essentially, it is an illustration of a point made in Mathew 6: verses 7&8:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”

***Spoiler Alert! Read no further if you would first like to read this story (linked below) for yourself. I urge you to, as it is only about five pages long***

An orthodox bishop is traveling by ship to the “Solavetsk monastery” with some pilgrims when he learns from a fisherman of an island inhabited by three devout hermits. His curiosity piqued, he persuades the captain of the ship to stop at this island and put him ashore so that he might meet these men. The bishop finds there three very old men, dressed in rags, with long beards, and one hardly able to articulate his words. The bishop proclaims he is there to “do what I can to teach you…” He asks them how they go about their prayers to save their souls and those of the rest of mankind. They respond, “We pray in this way, ‘Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.’ ”

The bishop surmises that they must understand something of the trinity but then advised them, “You do not pray aright,” and proceeds to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, which turns out to be an agonizingly slow task, due to their frail memories and vocal chords. When, finally, he thinks they’ve “got it,” he departs and wishes them well, no doubt quite pleased with himself. A while after sailing away from the island, though, he and the other passengers see a disturbance on the waves pursuing them very rapidly. Wondering what it might be, they soon realize it is the three hermits, gliding supernaturally over the water. They are despondent because they have already forgotten the bishop’s instruction and wish to be trained anew. A realization then hits the bishop and he says, ‘Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

Maybe what I like about this story is that the church official is actually able to see that his dogmatic approach to prayer may not be the best after all.

This story may be found free on-line in many places, one of which is linked here.

This is the second Tolstoy short story I’ve read this year for my project (the other being Master and Man). I still have neither read War and Peace nor Anna Karenina, choosing instead to test the waters with his shorter works first. What about you – have you read much Tolstoy? Do you think I would like W&P or AK?