Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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Review 1548: Daddy: Stories

The description of Daddy says that its stories explore the balance of power between the sexes. I did not find that to be the theme of every story, although it is for some. The book does explore the psyche of some unlikable people, many of whom are privileged and belong to show business or to the edges of the business. This is a world I’m not much interested in, so I felt little connection to these stories.

In “What Can You Do with a General,” John, who used to have anger issues, struggles to connect with his grown children over the holidays. In “Los Angeles,” Alice, a sales girl for a small store that plays up sexy women in the dress of its employees and its decor, begins selling her own underwear to men. In “Menlo Park,” Ben, who was fired from his job in disgrace, runs into trouble again while editing the autobiography of a controlling millionaire. In “Son of Friedman,” a once-famous director attends the opening of his son’s abysmal film with his old best friend, a still-famous actor. In “Nanny,” Kayla deals with the fall-out of having been caught having an affair with her married employer, a movie star.

link to NetgalleyAnd so on. I can see that the stated theme works for most of these stories except “Son of Friedman,” which, as with some other stories, is about the relationship between fathers and children. I found this collection disappointing after Cline’s excellent novel, The Girls.

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Review 1531: The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

I picked up this collection of gothic stories from the library so that I could read one of them, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” for the 1920 Club. Then I decided to read the rest of this beautifully presented book.

It’s hard for me to know what to say about it, because this type of gothic horror story, which used to appear in such magazines as Weird Tales, is just not my thing. On the other hand, it is almost definitely for people who like this genre. I prefer my scary stories to be about things that could happen or about ghosts, but Lovecraft is clearly drawn to grotesque creatures, dark family histories of the most freakish, and ancient rituals and beliefs become reality.

That he was deeply knowledgeable in the latter and often based his stories in actual locations or history is attested to by the many annotations and pictures in the margins of this book. That his writing is heavily dependent on description, some of it highly florid, is also certain. He loves using adjectives and adverbs, many of them unlikely, such as describing ruins as “hideously ancient.” In fact, he seems to have a fascination and repugnance for old things, both at the same time—or at least his narrators do.

The earlier stories are very short, only a couple of pages, while the later ones get longer and longer, so that I finished about half of the book but more than 3/4 of the stories.

Some of the more notable stories are “The Shunned House,” based on an actual house in Providence, in which the inhabitants seem to die off; “The Rats in the Walls,” combining a haunted house story with one of his favorite themes of a dark, hidden family history; and “The Outsider,” about a being who discovers he lives in a crypt. One of the stories, “Ex Oblivione,” described as a prose poem, I was unable to finish, but the rest were entertaining enough, just not my thing.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her café when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1496: #1920Club: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which I read for the 1920 Club, was my introduction to H. P. Lovecraft, whom I’ve read about for years. Based on this one story, I can’t really say much about Lovecraft’s work, but I intend to read all of the book it came in, The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.

The short story is written in archaic language that is supposed to remind us, and does, of old stories and legends. It tells how men came to live near the ancient city of Ib, occupied by green, voiceless beings with bulging eyes, and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants, and how its sea green idol disappeared. There the men founded the city of Sarnath.

Later, the city becomes wealthy and so beautiful that people from other cities visit it. But doom was foretold with the original actions of the men, and on the city’s thousandth anniversary . . . . Well, I won’t tell.

I get the impression just from the notes on this annotated edition that Lovecraft invented whole worlds that he returned to in other stories. The story is atmospheric but very short and not particularly scary or disturbing.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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Day 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 1212: Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund is the second of two novellas by Mrs. Oliphant contained in my Persephone Press edition of The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. Although I was disappointed in the first novella, I found this one much more sensational and touching. Both are about the consequences of middle-aged passion.

Those who are more aware of their British legends could probably guess where this story was going right from the beginning. It took me a bit longer.

Mrs. Lycett-Landon lives a contented existence on the banks of the Mersey outside Liverpool. She has married a successful businessman and has two cheerful children. Her son Horace is just old enough to join his father’s firm and is day-dreaming about the success he’ll make of it. Her husband Robert is an affectionate father and spouse.

Robert has been speaking of sending Horace to the London office to train with young Mr. Fareham, the nephew of Robert’s partner. However, after a business trip, Robert tells Mrs. Lycett-Landon that the London office is in disarray because of Fareham’s undisciplined work habits. He will have to travel more to London and stay longer to sort out the trouble.

Robert is home less often after that and is irritable when he is home. He looks eager to leave when he returns to London and seldom writes home. If you can’t guess what is going on, I’m surprised, but his family has no notion of it.

It is actually even worse than you’re probably guessing. The question is not so much what Mrs. Lycett-Landon discovers as what she decides to do about it.

Although it’s hard to imagine a woman dealing with this problem in the way she does, I was touched by Mrs. Lycett-Landon’s solution. I found this a much more involving story than the other. In both, the person involved holds back information, but in this one, it’s to more effect.

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Day 1160: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

Cover for The Mistletoe MurderThe Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a short collection of four previously uncollected stories by P. D. James. Two of them are set at Christmas, and two feature Adam Dalgliesh, one when he was a newly made sergeant.

“The Mistletoe Murder” is written as a reminiscence, as if it really happened, and P. D. James herself is a character (or the unnamed narrator is a mystery writer). A war widow, she is invited for Christmas at her grandmother’s house, after years of a family feud. There she spends almost all of Christmas Day with her cousin Paul. Another guest is Rowland Maybrick, who has been invited to value a coin collection and whom the narrator finds unappealing. The next morning, he is found with his head smashed in.

“A Very Commonplace Murder” is about an unpleasant man, Ernest Gabriel, and his memory of a murder. Having sneaked into the office at night to view a pornography collection owned by his deceased employer, Gabriel witnesses an illicit love affair going on next door. When the woman is murdered, Gabriel knows her young lover did not do it, but will he give evidence?

In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Adam Dalgliesh’s godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale, receives an inheritance from his stepgrandmother. But 67 years ago, Allie Boxdale was famously tried for the murder of her elderly husband. Although she was not found guilty, the Canon asks Dalgliesh to help determine whether she was or not before he can accept the legacy.

Finally, in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” young Sergeant Dalgliesh is flagged down on the road to his aunt’s house in Suffolk by Helmut Harkerville, who wants to report his uncle’s suicide and says his phone is out of order. Adam takes him to a phone box but then brings him home to inspect the scene. There he spots 12 clues that tell him this was a murder and the identity of the murderer.

In general, I don’t much enjoy crime short stories because they don’t allow time to develop a plot or characters so must rely on tricks. These stories, though, were a little more clever and interesting than the usual. I only guessed the solution to the second story, and I think some of the clues in the last were not fairly revealed. But the first and third stories held surprises. Overall, this was a set of entertaining mystery stories, much lighter than James’s usual fare.

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