Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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Day 993: Slipping

Cover for SlippingI have read two novels by Lauren Beukes and greatly enjoyed their mashup of crime fiction and science fiction. So, I thought I’d love Slipping, a collection of short stories, essays, and other writings.

Beukes’s writing is energetic and her ideas unusual, often gruesome. Her stories are often bizarre. But, oddly enough, after a while they seemed to be very similar. Most of them are set in South Africa in what appears to be the near future, although some are set on other planets. Many are violent; many have characters leading glitzy but vapid lives. They feature a lot of slang that may be invented. There is a glossary, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late.

“Muse” is a short poem about the difficulty of writing, in which the writer receives gloves made of “muse skin” with barbed hooks in the fingertips.

link to Netgalley“Slipping” is about athletes who are artificially enhanced competing in a race. One of them is even a dead body. “Confirm/Ignore” is about catfishing. “Branded” offers advertizers a brand new idea for sponsorship. “Smileys” is a dystopian tale about a street vendor defending herself against extortion. “Princess” puts a startling interpretation on the story of the princess and the pea.

I don’t know why I felt this sameness, as the stories are obviously varied in nature, but I found myself not wanting to read more. I think some of the images were just to grotesque for me.

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Day 979: Literary Wives! American Housewife: Stories

Cover for American HousewifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Strange short stories seem to be one of the newest literary fads, and Helen Ellis’s certainly qualify. Not only are many of the stories in this selection strange, but her approach to a few of them is unusual, those stories consisting only of lists. Her heroines are frequently demented.

“What I Do All Day” is one of those list stories, recounting the events of the daily life of a housewife with too little to do. “The Wainscotting War” is about a feud between co-op owners over the decor of a shared hallway. This story features a woman who becomes unhinged by this disagreement, losing her job and her husband because of her behavior.

My favorite story is “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” in which an author agrees to compete on a reality show. I liked this one because it sends up so-called reality television while having mostly likable characters. But some of the other stories just go too far over the top for me, like the one about the novel sponsored by Tampax, although I get the underlying message about what it takes to get some writers to write. Of course, one of Ellis’s main tools is exaggeration, and sometimes it is funny.

What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

It’s hard to generalize about marriage from these stories as the husbands are mostly in the background. Only in “Dead Doormen,” about how a wife takes over from her mother-in-law in caring for her husband’s position on the condo board, is their relationship at all stressed, and in this case, her husband is a privileged slob whom women control. Sometimes the husband is referred to affectionately, but often ironically, as when one narrator’s husband gives her a warm kiss every morning, but that’s the only one she ever gets. Although some of these wives work, most of them seem to be idle or to wait on their husbands hand and foot. I don’t get the feeling that Ellis’s housewife is representative of the women I know. On the other hand, maybe the term “housewife” is used ironically, as it is an old-fashioned word. Most of these stories seem to be steeped in irony and exaggeration.

Day 806: Silent Nights

Cover for Silent NightsSilent Nights is a collection of classic mystery stories set at Christmastime. Represented are well-known writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as writers who are not as well known now, such as Ethel Lina White and Leo Bruce. At least, I am no expert, but I have not heard of them before.

Like most mystery short stories I’ve read, these are more concerned with posing a puzzle. They are not long enough for much serious characterization or detailed plotting. Still, I found some of them surprisingly effective.

In “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White, for example, atmosphere is created in a story of a female reporter who decides to spend the night in a haunted wax museum. She is stalked there by a jealous coworker.

“Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace has an ending reminiscent of “The Gift of the Magi” in which the ill-gotten gains from a robbery that are hidden in the crop of a Christmas turkey end up in the hands of a poor, innocent couple about to depart for Canada. They think both the turkey and the money are gifts from the woman’s rich uncle.

In “The Unknown Murderer,” H. C. Bailey’s detective Dr. Reggie Fortune figures out the game of a pathological murderer. In “Cambric Tea” by Margery Bower, a jealous man tries to frame two innocent people for murder.

link to NetgalleyNot all are that successful. “A Problem in White” by Nicholas Blake doesn’t tell the solution (which I guessed) unless you turn to the back of the book. “The Name on the Window” by Edmund Crispin depends its puzzle on which side of the window the victim supposedly wrote the name of his attacker. Yet for this solution, we must suppose that the victim was stabbed and then walked around a building and down a long hallway for no apparent reason than that he could collapse on the other side of the window. Not, I think, the behavior of a dying man. (And, typically, he didn’t just write the name of his attacker; he hinted at it.)

In any case, this collection made me interested in looking for some of the longer works by some of these authors.

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Day 803: Thunderstruck and Other Stories

Cover for ThunderstruckNote: Survey results. Some of you may remember that about a year ago, I had a link up to a survey created by Ariel of One Little Library. If you are interested in viewing the results of the survey, she has now posted them on her web site.

* * *

Elizabeth McCracken’s stories combine a minute observation of ordinary life with a sensibility that is just a little perverse. Not very perverse, like the stories of Margaret Atwood or Karen Russell, but just a little. People disappear, someone down the street is murdered, a boy is almost starved to death by his grandfather—things that do happen but are unusual.

In “Something Amazing,” Missy Goodby, a girl who died of lymphoma, is said to haunt the neighborhood, but it is Santos Mackers who disappears after locking his little brother Johnny up in a trunk. Once Johnny gets free, the Goodbys are happy to care for him.

In “Property,” a recently widowed man leases a house sight unseen for his return to the States after his wife’s death. When he arrives, he finds the house filthy and full of trash. It takes some time for him to learn a different perspective about the house.

A woman who records novelty songs finds out more than she wanted to know about her audience in “Some Terpsichore.” The library employees see the effect both on the friends of a murdered woman and on the accused boy’s family in “Juliet.”

These stories are beautifully written with vivid imagery. I enjoyed this collection very much.

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Day 798: Ghostly

Cover for GhostlyIn honor of the season, I’m slipping in Ghostly, a new collection of ghost stories edited by Audrey Niffenegger. The stories are quite varied, some rather old, some new, some eerie, some funny. I have only read one of them before, “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury. This story, strictly speaking, is more science fiction but works well as a ghost story. It is certainly haunting.

My favorite story in this collection is a subtle one by Edith Wharton, “Pomegranate Seed.” Charlotte Ashby has married a widower who was understood to be under his previous wife’s thumb. Charlotte begins to notice that he regularly receives letters addressed in a faint handwriting. These letters distress him and give him headaches. She finally realizes they are from an unexpected source.

I also liked “The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions. In this story Paul Oleron leases the first floor of an old ruined house and finds it occupied. He becomes obsessed with this occupant, who is jealous of his friend Elsie. The result is murder.

“They” by Rudyard Kipling is a story inspired by the early death of Kipling’s daughter. While taking a random drive in the country, the narrator meets a blind lady with a house full of elusive children. The narrator can see them, but it turns out, not everyone can.

“The July Ghost” by A. S. Byatt, has a similar theme. A distressed young man tells a story at a party about his practical landlady. A silent young boy appears often while he is sitting in the garden. It takes him a while to realize that the boy is the landlady’s dead son, whom she yearns to see but cannot. This sad story was also inspired by the death of a child.

“The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link is a newer story about two young girls who are left home with a babysitter by their neglectful father. Although very young, the babysitter lived in the house quite some time ago.

Several of the stories are humorous, the most successful of which is “Honeysuckle Cottage” by P. G. Wodehouse. James Rodman, author of noir crime stories, is bequeathed money and a house by his aunt, the author of sentimental love stories, provided he stay in the house for six months. Rodman discovers, to his horror, that the house is haunted, not by an individual but by a sickly sentimentality that affects everyone who enters it.

link to NetgalleyAnother funny story is “Laura” by Saki. A dying society woman with a sense of mischief says that she would like to come back as an otter and admits she has let out the chickens her husband is so obsessed with and trampled his favorite flowers. After the funeral, which everyone finds irksome because it interferes with important social engagements, an otter begins breaking into the chicken coop and dragging the chickens through the flower garden.

For the most part, I found these stories entertaining and unusual. Niffenegger has included one of her own as well as illustrations and a short introduction before each story. The stories will certainly add atmosphere to your Halloween.

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Day 783: Let Me Tell You

Cover for Let Me Tell YouBest Book of the Week!
Although I almost always enjoy stories by Shirley Jackson, I was surprised and delighted to find myself even more captivated by the personal essays included in the collection Let Me Tell You. The book is divided into several sections, some of short stories, some of essays.

The first set of uncollected and unpublished short stories was interesting, although many were not her best. There were some bizarre or macabre stories, but the ones I enjoyed most seemed to be based on her own real-life preoccupations, a couple, for example, dealing with a professor’s affairs with his students. Her husband was quite the philanderer, apparently.

The essays, though, were centered around her home life and were funny and imaginative. Some are about the behavior of her children and the chaos of family life. In others, she imagines scenarios such as her toaster and her waffle iron having a feud because she toasted a frozen waffle. Or her two-pronged fork competing with her four-pronged fork. These essays are much more domestic than I expected, more whimsical, and funnier. I am now interested in rereading Life Among the Savages, her memoir about her family life.

link to NetgalleyThe last section of the book consists of essays on writing. I found myself absorbed by this section. I have read several books on writing, but they seldom include any advice that I found practical. Jackson’s essays include some very specific information about how she writes that I found revelatory.

I never thought I’d prefer essays to stories, but in this case, although the stories are enjoyable, I found the essays more entertaining and engaging.

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